CREAKING TREE STRING QUARTET with Brothers Cosmoline and Junetile at the Rivoli (332 Queen West), Friday (March 7), 9:30 pm. $9, with CD $15. 416-596-1908.
While many roots musicians are trying to figure out how best to connect with the huge O Brother audience, Toronto's own Creaking Tree String Quartet could have it sussed. Their intriguing improv chamber-grass concept seems ready-made to appeal to jazz, classical and bluegrass fans looking for a new spin on ancient instrumental forms.
Although, according to mandolinist Andrew Collins -- who splits his time between bluegrass jam band Crazy Strings and the more traditionally minded Foggy Hogtown Boys -- no elaborate market analysis was involved.
The unique Creaking Tree sound is just a logical consequence of the members' varied backgrounds: upright bassist Brian Kobayakawa studied in the Humber College jazz program with Collins, flash Celtic fiddler John Showman was classically trained, while acoustic guitar picker Brad Keller had been known to dabble in rock 'n' roll after giving up his NHL aspirations.
"The first time the four of us got together in a room was at Brad's place," recalls Collins before a Foggy Hogtown hoedown. "He'd rented some recording equipment and invited us over. We showed each other a couple of our own tunes and just started playing with the tape rolling.
"We used the songs on that recording as the demo we sent to the Canada Council along with our proposal for an album grant. Soon after, we were notified that our application was approved -- after playing together once!"
Listening to the Creaking Tree's Don Kerr-produced debut disc, it's clear that the grant money was both well deserved and well spent. The chamber-grass notion might seem like a bad joke on paper, but in practice their fluency in the musical vocabulary of the Celtic, classical, bluegrass and jazz traditions makes the uncommon blend sound completely natural.
It makes you wonder why more artists aren't bucking convention to similarly mix styles. Of course, a number of virtuoso artists are adding their own twists to the traditional repertoire, but unlike the Creaking Tree, relatively few can boast inventive new compositions to match their chops.
There's a precedent for their chamber-grass concept in Edgar Meyer's Uncommon Ritual (Sony) classical crossover project from 97, involving the Modern Mandolin Quartet's Mike Marshall and banjo boss Béla Fleck (the Trees cover Meyer's Sliding Down from that disc), although Collins credits the revolutionary work of the David Grisman Quintet with the real breakthrough.
"That first Grisman Quintet album from 77 was the real jump-off point for the whole new acoustic movement. The way they were bringing jazz influences into bluegrass took the music where it had never been, and after that everyone started looking at traditional music in a different way.
"As much as I love instrumental bluegrass, if that's all you're playing it can all start sounding the same very quickly. But Grisman showed how it was possible to keep things interesting by exploring different forms and sounds. The whole approach of having all the strings working together as one big rhythm section was really attractive, and very influential for us." email@example.com