Review by Ted Eschliman
Dynamic Duo of Stiernberg and Carlini strikes again with By George!
Ah, a dream come true, a follow-up, greatly anticipated collaboration by two of today's most engaging acoustic string jazz artists, mandolinist Don Stiernberg and guitarist John Carlini! The dynamic duo dazzled us last year with their joint venture "Angel Eyes," a journey into popular familiar jazz "Standards" bliss. Focused to the best of 20th Century titan, composer George Gershwin, they favor us with freshly finessed interpretations of some of his finest songs, in their latest release from Blue Night Records, "By George".
It's comfortably familiar acoustic quartet terrain, accompanied by two of Chicago's most in-demand side musicians, Jim Cox on bass and Phillip Gratteau on drums. The two veteran rhythmic stalwarts support, yet yield just enough sonic space to allow these two deliver yet more of the alluring harmonies and melodic interplay 14 strings could hope to deliver. As in their previous "Angel Eyes," we witness an uncanny chemistry, Carlini with his brazen yet honed Berklee complex harmonic vocabulary, and Stiernberg with his street-savvy "Windy City" charm. John brings the vertical, the tasty chord changes and Don propels it with the horizontal, his ever-driving sense of line and phrase. Back and forth, over and under, the two "weave" the music into a colorful acoustic tapestry.
"Nice Work If You Can Get It" starts the compilation with a sweetness that chooses tribute to tradition over grandiose deviation, seducing rather than sidetracking the listener. "Liza" takes the strategy forward by removing the oft-obligatory "camp" associated with the tune, patiently restoring its dignity in a clever, fast waltz.
Stiernberg stoops to a new low in "How Long Has This Been Going On." Precisely, a fifth lower, by introducing the mandola, the rarely recorded alto register instrument that borrows the lowest three courses of its smaller sister, the mandolin, and adds a 4th course of strings five steps lower. Featured through most of the song, its guttural slow tremolo enchants, adding a textural melancholy that once again refuses to betray the inherent drama and original character of the tune.
"Somebody Loves Me" lends more of the conventional string band "Pompe," a playful, anecdotal yarn followed by a percussive rendition of "Fascinatin' Rhythm" that lets percussionist Gratteau strut his highly capable stuff in Latin verve.
We get a full taste of just of just how well the duo complete and complement, trading roles of melody and improvisation in the classics "I've Got a Crush on You," and "Someone to Watch Over Me." As close to mimicking his mentor Jethro Burns as ever, Stiernberg grinningly jousts the melody of "The Man I Love" with his pick, and the witty accompanying of the others support him well. Ghost of Jethro, maybe, but with Stiernberg's own added signature sustained sweetness... The two moisten their metaphorical reeds with a brief, but crafty clarinet solo sampling of the illustrious overture to "Rhapsody in Blue" to introduce us to a percussive but sultry rendition of "Summertime." Tastefully sparse texturally, but richly laden with melodic diversion, the augmented 11th bluesy signature strokes of Carlini spice this classic with dulcet intrigue and contemporary delight.
Equally dynamic, the timeless "Embraceable You" is treated with a fast but controlled samba feel, followed by the bold, confident hard-swing of "Soon." Never without a spry bag of new tricks, the band literally strikes up with a playful, witty Rhythm & Blues rendition of "Strike Up the Band."
Second only to 12-bar Blues pattens, every well-groomed jazz musician routinely jams to stock "Rhythm Changes," whether a chorus of the Parker classic "Scrapple from the Apple" or the wildly popular mainstream "Theme from the Flintstones." No Gershwin package would be complete without this refrain, and the quartet finish off the CD royally and regally. "I Got Rhythm" suitably drives, rounds, and completes this Gershwin epiphany to fruition.
Recordings this good don't come around very often; it's destined to be a classic. We can only hope the duo continue to work their magic together a little while longer so we can treasure even more of their brilliant creative labor.