John Mailander is the latest bright light in the fiddle world to emerge from the Berklee College of Music in Boston, where he has studied under the tutelage of Darol Anger and developed into an adventurous and extremely capable player. His debut solo album, Walking Distance, finds him firmly in the mainstream of contemporary bluegrass and old time music on a mix of new and familiar material.
Assisting throughout are a string of virtuoso players from the northeast, most prominently Tony Trischka on banjo, with whom John occasionally performs, for half of the record’s 8 tracks. Fellow Berklee grad Lukas Poole contributes clawhammer banjo on a pair of tunes, as does Canadian Berklee student Alison de Groot on another. They are clearly attracting some fine banjo players to Boston.
But as you might expect, Mailander is the star of the show, whether he is tearing up a driving fiddle tune like Big-Eared Chicken, performed as a banjo/fiddle duet and written in the Kenny Baker mode, or an old time romp like Tell Me which closes the album with a flourish. Both are John’s compositions with just the right blend of tradition and originality.
The title track, which starts things off, is an aggressive modern fiddle piece on which everyone gets a chance to shine, including Joe Walsh on mandolin, another Berklee grad who nows teaches at the school. That is followed by Nahatlatch, an old timey mood tune from Mark Simos which features some lovely fiddle/banjo unison playing with Poole.
>Deserving of special mention is Molly Tuttle who provides fiery flatpicking throughout, and her trademark singing style on the record’s lone vocal number, John Hartford’s Gentle On My Mind. It’s a thoroughly modern reading of the song, faster than is common, and given a different feel with her supple, girlish voice. It’s a very strong cut.
As is Hayduke, a modern fiddle tune. Jake Joliff provides some fine mandolin here as well, especially in the spacey middle section filled with free improvisation. Inverness features Mailander on both fiddle and octave mandolin, with de Groot on banjo. It’s a sort of new fashioned old time tune (how’s that for a contradiction in terms?), with a lilting melody.
Song For John was written in memory of John McGann, who died while Mailander was at Berklee and McGann was on the faculty. A waltz, it includes the album’s sole bass solo, beautifully played by Brittany Karlson.
Be on the lookout for John Mailander. He’s a talented musician on the way up, as Walking Distance amply demonstrates.