Duke Ellington once said, "I'm sure critics have their purpose, and they're supposed to do what they do, but sometimes they get a little carried away with what they think someone should have done, rather than concerning themselves with what he did."
It's the first part of that quote that makes me feel compelled to place a disclaimer at the beginning of reviews that lead me to music outside my listening comfort zone but I subscribe to the philosophy set forth in another quip from Mr. Ellington, that "There are two kinds of music. Good music, and the other kind." It's easiest to concern myself with what the musicians did when I'm dealing with good music and not the other kind, and that's the case with this collaboration between Grammy-nominee Mike Marshall & Grammy-winning Turtle Island Quartet.
"Interplay" is an ideal title for the four-movement suite that opens the record. Each piece has moments of structure and improvisation, passages where Marshall's mandolin work is focal point and segments where it supports the violin work of the quartet. The highlights of the suite are Marshall's mandolin in the second movement ("Inner Voices") and a beautiful violin workout approximately 2/3 of the way through the final movement ("Thyaga").
Marshall composed four of the album's 11 tracks and two of them, "Sweets Mill" and "Egypt," stand as peaks on an album with no valleys. "Sweets Mill" is gentle, serene, and achingly beautiful, explored questions punctuated by an 11-note figure to provide resolution.
I'll bet $20 that Mike Marshall didn't have a deep album cut from Van Halen's 1984 in mind when he wrote "Egypt" but I'll never hear this song without thinking of Eddie Van Halen's intro to "Top Jimmy." I imagine you're all shocked to know the similarities between the songs quickly ends as Marshall steps aside and gives way to the quartet. The music doesn't evoke anything I associate with Egypt (or even walking like an Egyptian, for that matter) but the violinists decorate the written and improvised pieces beautifully, supported by Marshall's strumming and picking.
The album ends with a large left turn, Robert Johnson's Delta blues classic "Crossroads." The arrangement employed by Marshall and TIQ is credited to Darol Anger, who is clearly familiar with the version made famous by Cream. I hope Duke will forgive me when I say I wish Marshall had summoned his inner Clapton and shredded on his mando just a little more but these five musicians take this icon of the blues idiom on a thrilling ride. Marshall does indeed take a great solo, surprising me with his decision to play in a lower register. The sweaty, intense performance makes you marvel at Robert Johnson's original and how one man could summon so much sound and energy.
Mike Marshall & Turtle Island Quartet have made a record that would make Ellington proud. We can only hope they are already in the planning stages to do it again, soon.