Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Michael Lampert: Jacaranda

Michael Lampert
Sojourner Records

It’s been a while since anyone graced us with a straight-ahead jazz album consisting of all original tunes, played exclusively on electric mandolin.

In fact, has anyone ever graced us with a straight-ahead jazz album consisting of all original tunes, played exclusively on electric mandolin? Well, the question’s academic now: Michael Lampert’s Jacaranda is finally here and it’s been worth the wait.

For the past few years Lampert, the jazz columnist for Mandolin Quarterly, has labored in relative obscurity with gigs in Los Angeles nightspots. This is his first recording as a bandleader. Steeped in the vocabulary of electric jazz guitar, Lampert is perfectly capable of doing with four strings what it takes most guys six to accomplish. He coaxes some gorgeous licks and sweet, dark tones out of his custom Schwab solidbody. (The instrument itself, with its bookmatched flamed maple top, honey blonde finish, and tortoiseshell binding, is a work of art, and it figures prominently in Nancy Weiss’s stunning booklet and tray card design.)

The disc kicks off with a number called "Ken’s Blue Hat." The head for this tune consists of a deceptively simple arpeggiated theme, played twice, and then it’s off to the races. There’s tasteful solo work by the whole ensemble: Lampert, Tim Emmons on bass, Thomas White on drums, and a particularly nice break by Tom Bethke on guitar. Lampert provides some understated partial chord accompaniment for the other soloists.

Lampert visited Brazil a while back, and two of the fruits of his journey are on this CD: "Bahiamar" and the title track both display a strong Brazilian jazz influence, with Roberto Vizcaino contributing some extra percussion. Listen carefully to Lampert’s exceptionally clean attack; his solo on "Jacaranda" is full of nicely executed pull-offs and tricky rhythmic figures, with some moving chords toward the end. And "Bahiamar" should make all but the most terpsichoreally challenged wanna get up and dance..

All nine tracks are lovely, but my favorite was the glowing, achingly beautiful "Ballad in D Flat." If I have a criticism it’s that Lampert’s mandolin and Bethke’s guitar sound almost too similar; it’s not always easy to pick out which one you’re listening to. Here's a hint: Each number starts with Lampert playing the head and taking the first break, with Bethke coming in afterward. This stuff is so mellow and relaxing, I’m tempted to just let it wash over me instead of listening closely enough to hear the subtle differences in tone color between the two axes. (If you think it’s a crime for a mandolin to sound like an electric guitar, Jacaranda probably isn’t for you. Heck, this Web site isn’t for you. What are you doing here?)

But in Lampert’s case, "mellow" definitely doesn’t equal boring. While on the whole, his compositions are fairly understated, this ain’t the inane "smooth jazz" that causes all those traffic accidents by putting drivers to sleep. Everything’s sophisticated, creative, and spontaneous, and there isn’t a synthesizer in sight. For a tune with some muscle on it, try "NWLA" or "Rumplestiltskin."

It’s still awfully slim pickings out there for lovers of jazz mandolin, particularly electric jazz mandolin. But thanks to folks like Michael Lampert, the ball is rolling and we should be hearing more of this great music in years to come. Jacaranda is a fine piece of work and deserves to be in your CD player. You can order it right here at (It's also available from Mid-Continent Music or Elderly Instruments.) Show your support for a fellow e-mando player, and pick up a copy or six.

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