At some point you stop trying to put your finger on exactly which genres David Grisman is synthesizing at a given moment. His prodigious list of albums and band projects includes some straight-up bluegrass, newgrass, folk, string-heavy jazz, and whatever category into which you want to throw his body of work with Jerry Garcia. In terms of compulsive sit-ins and bringing a bluegrass instrument into more mainstream areas of American music, he was Bela Fleck before Bela Fleck.
And so, was his newly formed Folk Jazz Trio, which played at Infinity Hall in closer-than-you-think Norfolk, Conn., particularly folky or jazzy? I can’t quite say. It featured a blend of Scottish balladry, mellow bluegrass breakdowns, jazzy walking basslines, and a touch of pop and blues. Whatever it is, it’s always all about Grisman’s expert touch on the mandolin, and a fearlessness to blur the lines that is born from a long-achieved mastery of the fundamentals.
In this acoustic combo, he’s joined by guitarist Jim Hurst as well as his son, Samson Grisman, on bass. The idea for the band apparently sprung up when the elder Grisman saw one of Hurst’s shows last year. Their abbreviated track record notwithstanding, the three displayed much musical empathy and an able interplay—sharing vocal duties, changing dynamics like tempo and volume on the fly, and even exploring all the mathematically possible duet possibilities within the group.
“The Girl I Left Behind,” presented as a duet between the Grismans, started off with the bassist handling the melody as the mandolin comped; later, the bandleader took over the melody and left his son to dig into a particularly energetic bassline. The only real taste of bluegrass’ high lonesome sound came with “Mary of the Wild Moor,” a waltz that included vocal harmonies from the mandolinist and Hurst, and one of many well-received solos from the guitarist.
Hurst was a star all night, in fact, providing a Spanish-tinged lead for “Vaya Con Dios” and ripping off a flowing solo in “Handsome Cabin Boy,” which also benefited from some particularly zippy mandolin lines from Grisman in the intro. Just a touch of gypsy jazz came in “Swang Thang,” and “Cypress Grove” was the only all-out blues, with lead vocals (starting off with a scatted intro) from Hurst and a thrilling moment when the leader called for a downshift in tempo so the band could dig into the song’s groove.
After two sets of about 45 minutes each, I wasn’t interesting in performing a musicological autopsy; like most in a surprisingly rowdy crowd (for the venue and band), I was satisfied to call myself delighted and leave it at that.