I suppose if there was one recording that qualifies as a crash course in contemporary mandolin players, a veritable Who's Who of the Mandolin World, it would have to be the David Grisman conceptual project, Tone Poets. Recently, I caught Joe Craven in performance and one of the things he said really caught my attention. Craven said, "It's not the car, it's the driver." In other words, it's not the instrument, it's the player. And this is the central idea behind Tone Poets.
Grisman, of course, famously recorded the three Tone Poems albums that featured him and other guest guitarists playing various vintage instruments. Every track featured Grisman and company on different mandolins and guitars. In these recordings, Grisman was trying to show the differences that can be heard between different brands, models, and styles of mandolins and guitars. And sometimes the differences were great and sometimes they were subtle.
But to balance out this idea, he then turned it on its ear and made Tone Poets, where he had scores of players from all sorts of musical backgrounds play the exact same mandolin and guitar. And the result was interesting to say the least. Despite not playing their own very famous, in some cases, and distinctively sounding instruments, Sam Bush still sounded like Sam Bush. John Reischmann still sounded like he always does. And Ronnie McCoury still sounded like himself. So despite Grisman's effort to school us on how vintage instruments can sound unique and different from each other, he now showed us that the players have the final say in how they sound.
And in doing that Grisman brought together and recorded an incredibly wide range of mandolin players: Tim O'Brien, Radim Zenkl, Tony Williamson, Mike Marshall, Carlo Aonzo, Jody Stecher, Don Steirnberg, Chris Thile, and literally dozens more. And that's not to mention the guitarists, like Bryan Sutton, John Carlini, Tony Rice, Jerry Douglas, Del McCoury and many more. I look at this double CD collection as a stepping off platform to discover which musical direction for the mandolin you want to explore, whether it's bluegrass, jazz, classical, or whatever. Tone Poets is filled with truly great performances and has been close to hand ever since I bought it when it came out in 2005. And that's why I'm putting it in The Mandolin Canon of Essential Recordings.