In Los Angeles, opening acts rarely receive attentive and appreciative audiences, let alone standing ovations. When the crowd rose following mandolinist David Grisman’s exhilarating jam on the swinging “Dawgology” with headliner Bela Fleck and guest banjoist Tony Trischka, ace musicianship had clearly touched a collective heart. As much as Grisman’s greater fame is tied to his work with the late Jerry Garcia, it’s testimony to his unique composition and performing skills that he can transcend that small portion of his oeuvre to concentrate on the abundantly rich style he has called “dawg music” for 24 years.
“Dawg” is a hybrid of jazz, swing, bluegrass and Latin rhythm with the occasional Caribbean or funk lick tossed in. Grisman, who runs the fine Acoustic Disc label from his Northern California base of San Rafael, has consistently expanded the language of the mandolin with the Quintet and guests who, over the years, have included jazz violinists Stephane Grappelli and Sven Asmusen, flat-pickers Doc Watson and Tony Rice (a member of the first DGQ) and bluegrass’s finest, such as Fleck on banjo.
But Grisman has always displayed the affinity of a jazz player, and it came as a real delight when he opened the show with Miles Davis’ “Milestones,” which had followed a folk-jazz vamp. With the lineup of flute, bass, guitar and percussion — and a fiddle solo every so often — Grisman’s band presented swinging music that knows no boundaries; guitarist Enrique Coria, who hails from Argentina, exemplified this best, infusing much of his playing with South American flourishes. He also made some impressive bluegrass runs.
Still, Grisman’s affection for the gypsy-swing of Grappelli and guitarist Django Reinhardt, which dates back to the 1930s, is omnipresent: One of the new tunes Grisman unveiled had the easygoing buoyancy of Reinhardt with the catchiness of some of Grisman’s classic works such as “Dawgology,” which the band performed with Fleck.
The DGQ is expected to soon make its first recording in five years. Grisman’s latest solo disc is a stunning collection of duets with the likes of Fleck, percussionist Zakir Hussain, violinist and former bandmate Mark O’Connor and the pianist Denny Zeitlin. In many ways, a project such as this helps to expand the vocabulary Grisman brings to the quintet and, in turn, the flute-bongo mixture has never blended better.
When this unit began life at venues such as McCabe’s in Santa Monica, it was a wildly visceral band steeped in the traditions of bluegrass, its lightning-fast solos featuring previously unheard-of flights into jazz. For an hour and 15 minutes, Grisman demonstrated how far this band, even with a changing cast of characters, has traveled from those early days as they closed the evening with some very tasty funk. Grisman released an intriguing four-CD overview of the band upon its 20th anniversary; perhaps a special tour could honor its 25th.