When people think of bluegrass their thoughts may not immediately turn to Canada, but several groups and musicians are ensuring the music is thriving north of the US border. At the forefront is the Toronto-based mandolin virtuoso Andrew Collins. A mainstay of the Canadian acoustic scene, Andrew plays in several collaborations and is fast becoming recognised as one of the best mandolin players around.
Andrew can play just about anything on the 8-string, whether it’s new acoustic and jazz with The Creaking Tree String Quartet, traditional fiddle tunes in his collaboration with Brian Taheny or ripsnorting bluegrass with The Foggy Hogtown Boys. He’s also released a solo album which combines all these styles and more.
Heading the list of Andrew’s current projects is The Creaking Tree String Quartet. Made up of four highly talented musicians from various backgrounds and with three albums under their belts, they are establishing themselves as one of the leading lights of new acoustic music. Their sound incorporates classical, jazz, swing, bluegrass and folk, played on mandolin, guitar, violin and bass.
The most recent release, The Soundtrack, does exactly what it says on the tin. The album has the feel of a movie score with short bursts of incidental music coupled with longer, thoughtful passages (the incredible Spacehead clocks in at almost ten minutes). Their other releases, Side Two and an eponymous début, are similar in their creativity and experimentation whilst maintaining strong ties to folk and bluegrass roots.
They are one of many instrumental groups today who are ignoring the so-called rules and boundaries set by genre classifications. If you like music such as Strength In Numbers, Psychograss or Matt Flinner, then you’ll love The Creaking Tree String Quartet.
But Andrew has not entirely abandoned the old ways. His collaboration with Irish musician Brian Taheny, Mando Lore, is a fine collection of traditional Celtic, French-Canadian and American tunes primarily featuring mandolin family instruments. The clean, tasteful playing has won many fans, including English mandolinist Simon Mayor who feels the CD is “matchless playing of Irish traditional music (with the odd North American influence) from two true masters of their art”. The recording showcases Andrew’s talents on several other instruments – guitar, mandola and mandocello.
The solo recording Little Widgets is the perfect example of how Andrew can at once be a traditional yet progressive musician. So many genres are covered here, from the old-time fiddle tune Yellow Barber, through the swing of Blue Ming to Bach’s Cello Suite #3. Most impressive is the strength of his self-penned work. Almost all the tunes were composed by Andrew with Pendleton Murray and Dickering Al amongst the highlights.
If you’re thinking “but it’s not really bluegrass, is it?”, fear not! Andrew also plays in the Toronto bluegrass group The Foggy Hogtown Boys. Featuring Chris Quinn on banjo, John Showman on fiddle, Chris Coole on guitar and Max Heineman on bass, the band are regarded as perhaps Canada’s finest exponents of the genre, receiving plaudits from many top US musicians including Tim O’Brien.
Unlike Andrew’s other work, this is pure, hard driving bluegrass that could have come straight out of Kentucky. Their recent instrumentals CD, Pigtown Fling, features Andrew not only playing Monroe style but also composing in the same vein – The Stomp of Approval is a tune Bill would have undoubtedly been proud to write himself. The rest of the band follow suit – Quinn with a strong Scruggs style, and Showman paying homage to Kenny Baker on many of the numbers.
And his talents don’t end there. Other works include a CD with guitarist Marc Roy, and “super bands” Lickin’ Good Fried and Crazy Strings – both made up from members of various Toronto groups. Still young by bluegrass standards, and having only picked up the mandolin at 23, we are sure to see and hear even more exciting musical developments from Andrew in future.