Chris Biesterfeldt attacks straight-ahead jazz on ‘Urban Mandolin’

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Normally, straight-ahead jazz features bass, drums, and piano, maybe guitar. But a mandolin? Kind of a stretch — until Chris Biesterfeldt takes it on in his masterful new, urbanization of the form. CREDIT: John Mazlish

Chris Biesterfeldt’s new CD ‘Urban Mandolin’ is amazing. I’ve known Chris as a great guitarist since he first came to New York and had never heard him play mandolin. (Actually I’ve never heard anybody play jazz on the mandolin like this before). What he has done here takes not only great skill, taste and creativity, but a lot of guts!” Dave Stryker

In Chris Biesterfeldt’s Nov. 5, 2013 release, the mandolin replaces piano and guitar in a rhythmic drive that’s surprisingly deft, pleasant, and way different than a typical straight-ahead circle jerk. The Broadway orchestra guitarist surprised a lot of people in the industry by picking up the mandolin in this surprising release. Many of his fellow musicians literally had no idea the guy could play mandolin, much less like this.

A guitarist has a hard enough time as it is fitting into traditional straight-ahead jazz session. Oftentimes, he’s the butt of jokes as the worship steadily streams to the piano man. Step aside and let the big boys do their job. Well, in Urban Mandolin, Biesterfeldt blows that kind of elitist attitude away in crazy, frenetic, workable strokes with his acoustic team — bassist Adam Armstrong and drummer Eric Halvorson.

They don’t resort to electronic, fusion tricks to get their point across. They don’t need to. With balls to the wall, they attack a stunning variety of covers that shouldn’t make sense on a straight-ahead traditional jazz album, yet does. There’s a lot here to cover: Beach Boys’ heartbreakingly fragile “God Only Knows,” Charlie Parker’s “Quasimodo,” Frank Zappa’s “Rollo Interior,” Weather Report’s “Teen Town,” Dizzy Gillespie’s “Bebop,” Wayne Shorter’s “Witch Hunt” (in 6/8), Thelonious Monk’s “Bye-Ya,” Eddie Harris’ “Freedom Jazz Dance,” preserved classics Chick Corea’s “Armando’s Rhumba” and Pat Metheny’s “Bright Size Life,” Brecker Brothers’ “Some Skunk Funk.” All told, 16 fully realized, highly ambitious covers turned into jazz standards suffering very little in the urban mandolin translation.

Balls.’s Ted Eschliman had the same impression, give or take the ridiculous pace of the entire production. “Outside of the Brazilian choro ensemble, it’s not often you hear the mandolin drive the energy in a band, let alone sustain it through the bulk of an hour long recording. Even in its more familiar bluegrass role, the instrument takes a back seat to the collaborative of banjo or guitar. If we had any criticism it would be the indefatigable gait through the entirety of the song manifest. The barn-burning pace in this acoustic joyride is borderline hyperemic, yet resoundingly engaging and satisfying throughout the CD.”

Biesterfeldt stops short of KC and the Sunshine Band in that barn-burning, impossibly lightning pace, because of a crazy feel. He could easily hammer each track to death, as a lesser player might, but he doesn’t. He switches up the intensity like a man possessed but coming out at the other end, about to hit bottom. Before he does, he’ll take every note and burn it down. In the blistering “Bebop,” Biesterfeldt doesn’t just strum on his mandolin like a child. He rips each string apart trying to dig into some unknown mystery like a mad, unrequited poet.

In “Freedom Jazz Dance,” Biesterfeldt taps into the Hawaiian tropics, using his mandolin as an impossible ukulele on an acid funk trip. Shrapnel jiggered into this mod strangulation, he completely eviscerates the Latin mandolin into an instrument of delightful torture.

“Armando’s Rhumba” is a drumming dream session, laying byzantine waste between soft percussive whispers and the tang of mandolin, thrown sideways.

For many pop fans, the Beach Boys classics tend to improve in the covers. None more elegantly than the choral-ready “God Only Knows.” The Captain & Tennille pulled out an almost gospel component of the song in their 1970s version, lifting a simple love song into the hemisphere of the universally sublime. Biesterfeldt again transforms his humble mandolin, as an instrument capable of fetching the fragility of love and converting feeling into a religion through his manipulation of strings, as if gently pulling taffy.

Biesterfeldt doesn’t quite manage the same sacrificial immolation in Bonnie Raitt’s 1991 pop hit, “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” The plaintive note for note playing left the cover a little wanting, except for that neat, little flicker at the end of each finish.

Chris Biesterfeldt elevates straight-ahead jazz out of an arguably dying breed. He also elevates the mandolin into an instrument capable of the greatest change.

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