One Track Mind: Alex Hargreaves, “April Joy”
Photo by Maria Camillo
by S. Victor Aaron
Sometimes it takes a fantastic cover of a song to make you realize how good the original has always been. This One Track Mind is about one of those times.
When I think of the eponymous Pat Metheny Group album from way back in 1978, the first songs that come to mind are “San Lorenzo”, “Phase Dance” and “Jaco.” I used to consider the couple of tracks after “Jaco” as just killing time until the album’s fiery closer “Lone Jack.” It took a virtuosic seventeen-year-old bluegrass fiddler to show me the treasure in that stretch I had long glossed over.
Last year, the child prodigy violinist Alex Hargreaves issued with his first album Prelude. But Hargreaves didn’t just plop on the scene from nowhere, not even at Something Else. Hargreaves was sharing a stage with David Grisman at age ten and he was part of Mike Marshall’s exciting new trio that came out with some astonishingly virtuosic strong music in 2009.
We’ve already seen Marshall’s enthusiasm for having this fast-budding talent (along with another fresh-faced phenom Paul Kowert on bass) in his band. But in the same month the three had gotten together in a studio to record Mike Marshall’s Big Trio, the great mandolin player Marshall served as producer for sessions led by Hargreaves. Both Marshall and Kowert stayed on at the studio with their instruments in tow, and with Grant Gordy added for acoustic guitar, Hargreaves’ debut sessions as a leader were executed. Getting a record deal couldn’t have been much of a problem, since Adventure Music is Marshall’s baby. In the music biz, it’s always good to have friends in high places, especially when that friend is also a musical partner.
Aside from some guest appearances by banjo players Bela Fleck and Noam Pikelny, Prelude isn’t that different at all from Big Trio, but seeing as I liked that record, having more of the same doesn’t bother me one bit. Hargreaves might get a bit more showcased on this record, but Marshall already gave him plenty of spotlight in the trio, so it’s not a whole lot more. That’s okay, too, because Marshall astutely understands that the brand of string music they play relies on delicate interplay, and at this high level of musicianship, no one can sound good unless everyone sounds good.
That’s certainly the case for this wonderful arrangement of Metheny’s “April Joy”, the song I had been paying too little attention to for all those years. Metheny always had a special gift for spinning very impressionistic melodies out of the most complex constructions, and it can doubtless be tough to render with just one instrument. Hargreaves does the first part of it with Marshall tracking along with a harmony part on mandolin, then Gordy matches Hargreaves in unison for the middle part of the theme, followed by Marshall returning to play the harmony again. Afterwards, all four take solo turns (with Kowert using a bow for his), as the other three fade into rhythm roles so effortlessly, you never long for any percussion. No one overplays their solos, but all find a way to improvise in such a way to express that beautiful melody, with Hargreaves’ being the most soulful.
Matt Glaser, artistic director of the American Roots Program at the Berklee College of Music calls Alex Hargreaves the “best young jazz violinist in America.” He says this even though Hargreaves doesn’t technically play jazz in a strict sense most of time, but this teenager already understands as a good jazz musician does about how to be creative in the moment, listen and play off what his bandmates are doing, and as he so well demonstrates on “April Joy,” get inside a melody and make it glow.
Bonus: Another standout cut from Prelude is “Road Song,” which goes to show that when put in the right hands, bluegrass can be funkier than George Clinton after going a week without a shower.
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