Phillips, Grier & Flinner,
Looking Back
(Compass, 2002)

The days when one bought everything a record label put out seem to have been long gone, with most labels having to release a wide assortment of music to stay in business. Such is not the case with Compass Records, which specializes in new and edgy acoustic music that blurs the gaps between roots genres. I haven't heard everything Compass has released in the few years they've been in business, but I've never heard a Compass release I didn't like, and Looking Back is no exception. Todd Phillips, David Grier and Matt Flinner combine brilliantly on bass, guitar and mandolin for nine hefty portions of bluegrass/jazz/world and just damn fine music.

The first two tracks pay homage to Bill Monroe (it seems Monroe homages are starting to become a cottage industry these days) with "Tennessee Blues" and "Monroe's Hornpipe." Right off the bat these guys make it sound easy. These are wonderful, relaxed cuts by three masters of their multiple genres. A soulful "I Am a Pilgrim" follows, and we downshift into the jazz idiom with the old classic "Afro Blue," which Phillips makes his own. There's more fine jazz with McCoy Tyner's "Search for Peace," and we're back to the country with Jim and Jesse's "Dixie Hoedown," which demonstrates Grier's consummate flatpicking talents. No matter how fast he plays, he never seems frenzied or rushed, and the same can be said for Flinner, who also displays his prodigious chops on this track.

We're back to Big Mon for his classic "Old Dangerfield," which gets a sincere and respectful reading, and go to the other end of the musical spectrum for Jimi Hendrix's "Little Wing," which is laid back and stoneriffic. The CD ends with the Beatles' "I Want You/She's So Heavy," which lays close to the Beatles' tempo. It's a great tune for improvisation, sticking as it does to a repeating chord progression, and the players make the most of it. It does get a bit long at nine minutes-plus, and when it stops cold (just like the Liverpool lads), you get the feeling there's a-gonna be a hidden track coming up, and sure enough there is. But instead of "Her Majesty," it's a solo mandolin ditty.

There's some fine music here, but it gets a little tiring by the end, probably due to the lack of an instrument with a truly sustaining sound. I started to find myself wishing for the drawn-out tones of a Darol Anger fiddle as a contrast to the never-ending barrage of picking and plucking. Even brilliant musicians -- and these guys are -- can't do much to vary the sameness of sound that plucked and picked instruments offer, and it would have been nice to have had a guest who contributed bowed or blown sustained notes to add some variety.

Still, that's just a nit to pick on an otherwise intriguing and eye-opening album. Compass keeps its extraordinary run of fine releases going with this little three-man gem, and I'll be anxious to see what's next, both from the label and from this trio.

- Rambles
written by Chet Williamson
published 7 April 2003

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