Looking Glass from Chris Pandolfi

Chris Pandolfi - Looking GlassI’ve known The Infamous Stringdusters’ banjoist Chris Pandolfi and his music for the past 6 years. Over that time I’ve seen him develop musically and professionally into one of the brightest lights in the modern banjo world.

In fact, before I met Chris – or Panda as he is know to his Infamous brethren – or even heard him play, word of his exploits had preceded him, and in a manner eerily similar to that of another hot young banjo picker 20 years earlier.

When I was a journeyman banjoist in the early 1980s, everyone was buzzing about this amazing banjo player named B?©la Fleck. This was well before YouTube and the internet, so he was like a phantom picker that we had all heard about, but never seen or heard. We just knew that he was hanging out around Boston and blowing everyone’s mind who saw him play. It wasn’t until he started performing with Tasty Licks that the rest of the banjo world got to hear his music.

When word of Pandolfi’s banjo playing came to my attention, he was also hanging out in Boston, studying at The Berklee College of Music. He had not yet been recorded, and I only knew of him by reputation. Bill Evans had been teaching him over the summers, and Dave Hollender at Berklee was helping guide him through the system there. Both were effusive in their praise of Chris’ skill and his work ethic.

I suppose I really shouldn’t burden Chris with a B?©la Fleck analog; that isn’t fair on multiple levels. Still, any time a young player gets a rep before they record or perform widely, it’s a safe bet that they have something special to offer.

He and I met at IBMA shortly after he had graduated from Berklee, and I was immediately impressed by his seriousnes and passion for the banjo. What I had always heard was that he was an amazing technician and a master of progressive banjo wizardry, but when we met, Pandolfi was completely engrossed in becoming more familiar with traditional roll-based playing, and focusing on tone and feel.

The excitement I saw in his eyes when he was describing what he was studying told me that, without a doubt, this young man was a banjo player.

Not long after our first meeting, I picked up a copy of his debut recording, The Handoff, which featured his original music. Listening now to his brand new Sugar Hill release, Looking Glass, it is readily apparent how much Pandolfi has grown and matured as a player and a composer of banjo music over 6 years time.

The tunes are more thoughtful and melodic, and most importantly, they embrace rather than challenge the strengths and weaknesses that the 5 string banjo presents.

Chris Pandolfi“Like my playing, I think my writing has become simpler in some way. I’ve tried to write things that are strong and simple, but still unique. I gave a lot of thought to the limitations of a project like this–not trying to write stuff that would be too complex for the players to really ingest in a short period of time but making sure that I stayed true to my original ideas. Striking the balance between originality and simplicity has been a good challenge for me.”

This new project displays a high level of virtuosity and musicianship – from both Pandolfi and his fellow musicians – and his new compositions show a creative side that is often eclipsed by the other strong songwriters and instrumentalists in The Infamous Stringdusters.

Joining Chris in the studio for Looking Glass were Chris Eldridge, Andy Falco and Ross Martin on guitar, Jesse Cobb and Matt Flinner on mandolin, Byron House, Eric Thorin and Travis Book on bass, and Stuart Duncan and Jeremy Garrett on fiddle. Tracking was done at Pandolfi’s home studio between Fall ’08 and the Winter of ’09.

Chris Pandolfi“The studio can accommodate 4 musicians comfortably so we would track mandolin, bass, guitar and banjo together live. I used a click for a few tracks early on but my philosophy on that changed a few songs in, so most of it is live with no click. We would make fixes where necessary but the most important thing this time around was to capture the rhythm section live. That really allowed me to capture what all of these guys do so well: make music with other people.

I really wanted this album to be the newest batch of tunes, and to get it done quickly so it would sound fresh. I wrote almost everything in the last year, and arranged the music leading up to the sessions once I had the instrumentation and the various players in mind. I wanted the vibe of the album to be consistent, which helped give me some direction as I wrote the last few tunes.

I recorded everything at my home studio in East Nashville. Dave Sinko, Erick Jaskowiack and Drew Becker were all very helpful throughout the process. I just tried to get the best sounds possible with the gear I could afford, without any EQ or compression on the front end. Having the studio right upstairs really afforded me the opportunity to be productive whenever I had a break from the ‘Dusters busy schedule.”

Surely the best way to get a taste of the music is to – get a taste of the music! We asked Chris to suggest a few tracks to excerpt for our readers, and his choices – and comments – follow here:

Winnipeg  –  Listen now:    [http://media.libsyn.com/media/thegrasscast/winnipeg.mp3]

“When I started writing this one, it was essentially a three part fiddle tune. But as I practiced it I started hearing a more spacious groove under the first two parts. Like most tunes, it took shape once we started working on it as a band, and Byron got it dialed in right away. The line he plays right at the top is very complementary to the melody, and really sets up the two beat ‘bluegrass feel’ which appears a little later.”

Machines  –  Listen now:    [http://media.libsyn.com/media/thegrasscast/machines.mp3]

“A lot of times in bluegrass and acoustic music, the faster the tune, the heavier/harder the aesthetic. I wanted to write something fast and relatively simple for my record with some interesting harmonic content that would lend itself to a lighter feel. This is something the ‘Dusters have worked with quite a bit, and I always like the way it sounds. A fast song with a really controlled, light feel gives you so much dynamic room to work with. This one was inspired by my friend Tony ‘Blinky’ Brinkworth.”

Big Bend  –  Listen now:    [http://media.libsyn.com/media/thegrasscast/big_bend.mp3]

“This is a very simple tune that takes advantage of one of the instrument’s most beautiful tonalities: Open D (fifth string is tuned to A). There’s a basic form and soloing here, but the goal is really to create a vibe with the other players that moves through the whole tune. I wrote it with the Matt Flinner trio in mind, because they have a great sense of how to create textures and sounds together and they all play with amazing tone.”

Looking Glass has been released as a digital-only album by Sugar Hill. Chris has a limited number of manufactured discs which will be available at the ‘Dusters’ live shows, with primary distribution through iTunes and similar download sites.

The Infamous Stringdusters have incorporated a few songs from the new release into their shows, and Pandolfi is hoping to tour this winter with Chris Eldridge, where performing material from this new project would surely be on the agenda.

“Me and Critter did a duo tour way back when we first moved to Nashville–we promise it will be better this time around. Stay tuned for some tour dates….”

This is a good one, folks. Check it out!

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About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.