Review: 2 new releases from Mapleshade

Category: Music

Yesterday I received an order of several CD’s released recently by Mapleshade / Wildchlld, and there are two CD’s -- one of which is a gem -- that I want to share with other Audiogon members. The first CD, “Tony Williamson and the Williamson Brothers Band” (Wildchild #08952) is an absolutely terrific bluegrass recording, and the second CD (Mapleshade #08432) is a fine jazz piano recording by the Gerard D’Angelo Trio titled “Not What My Hands Have Done”.

Several months ago, I made a post listing some of my favorite recordings of the past year, and in that post I confessed to being a closet bluegrass fan. I bought my first bluegrass recording in the late 1950’s: the Columbia LP by Lester Flatt and Earle Scruggs, “Foggy Mountain Banjo”. During the intervening 40+ years, that recording has always had a special meaning for me and been my personal “gold standard” for bluegrass instrumentals, despite the somewhat commercial values behind the recording. “Foggy Mountain Banjo” is now joined by the Williamson brothers recording on Wildchild, recorded in March 2001.

Tony and his brother Gary have been singing together for nearly 40 years, and their close harmony, “high lonesome” vocals and instrumental play is extraordinary. Tony is a superb mandolin player, and his brother Gary is equally accomplished on guitar. The brothers have performed at many of the leading bluegrass festivals, and won major prizes at the Galox and Union Grove world championships.

They are joined by Larry Perkins (banjo and guitar), who has been a regular on the Grand Ole Opry, played on the Grammy Awards with Johnny Cash, toured for years with the great John Hartford, and been in bands with Earle Scruggs, Doc Watson, and Bill Monroe; Don Wright (banjo and guitar); Rex McGee (fiddle and lead guitar); and Tom Gray (bass), the only bass player elected to the Bluegrass Hall of Honor. Let me state clearly: every guy on this recording is a monster on his instrument, and the music they create collectively is a pure joy to listen to.

What makes the recording even more worthy of purchase is the fine sound quality. This album, in my opinion, sets a new standard for bluegrass recordings – as close to audiophile quality as you will hear, but with performances that far exceed what one usually finds on audiophile recordings (and 98% of bluegrass recordings). Pierre Sprey, owner of Mapleshade and head recording engineer, has made one of his best recordings to date on this effort by the Williamson brothers. Some of the Mapleshade recordings have been a bit dry acoustically for my tastes, and others have been miked more closely than I like. This time, Sprey has gotten it just right – the voices and instruments are wonderfully clear, dynamic, and full of presence.

This recording is the bluegrass ”real deal”. With the revival of interest in bluegrass since the movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou”, and the new popularity of groups like Allison Kraus and Union Station, this CD by the Williamson brothers deserves to sell hundreds of thousands of copies. Sadly, it probably won’t, because Wildchild is a small label and doesn’t have the promo budget to push this CD. Too bad, because this is the best overall bluegrass recording I have heard in many, many years, and it is going to get a LOT of play in my home.

The other recording which I commend to fans of mainstream jazz piano is the effort by Gerard D’Angelo, “Not What My Hands Have Done”, recorded in May, 1993. D’Angelo is backed by Jay Anderson (bass) and Jeff Hirschfield (drums). D’Angelo was born in 1954, and grew up listening to his father who was a self-taught stride pianist. D’Angelo says that he really got hooked on jazz when he first listened to his father’s LP’s by Erroll Garner and Ramsey Lewis, and at age 15 he began taking lessons, and then attended a summer session at the Berklee School of Music. D’Angelo’s style is very reminiscent of Bill Evans, with touches of McCoy Tyner and Herbie Hancock.

D’Angelo played in most of the major jazz venues in New York City for some 15 years. He also performed at some of the major international jazz festivals, such as Rome, Toriano, and the North Sea, where he played with first-rate players such as Zoot Sims, Red Rodney, Nat Adderley, Mel Lewis, and Ira Sullivan.

The other members of D’Angelo’s trio are also superb musicians in their own right, having played with some of the best musicians in jazz: Paul Bley, Lee Konitz, Donald Byrd, Jim Hall, John Abercrombie, Bob Brookmeyer, Mose Allision, John Zorn, Joe Lovano, Kenny Wheeler, Fred Hersch, and others.

This CD features some excellent mainstream jazz piano work and is very deserving of being heard by a wider audience.
Great review Sd. I would buy the D'Angelo recording based solely on your review and the incredible line up of artists.

Although it has nothing to do with your post directly, I wonder what your take is on "Oh Brother Where Art Thou?" Certainly this sound track has raised the general publics interest for that style of bluegrass music.
Hi, Albert:

Bluegrass, strictly speaking, is a relatively new form of popular music that arose during the past 75 years, but it has deep roots in American history, drawing from the music played by the early settlers to the Appalachian and Piedmont areas of our country. Bluegrass may well be the "Rodney Dangerfield" of American popular music, getting no respect, and often regarded pejoratively as a bastard cousin of country music.

Hence, I found myself very pleasantly surprised by the soundtrack in "O Brother" -- it has some genuinely good bluegrass music. I'm pleased whenever the public's attention is drawn to a form of American music that deserves wider recognition. The resurgence of interest in bluegrass attributable to new artists such as Allison Kraus, Bela Fleck, and others is laudable, but much of what is currently passing as bluegrass is often just a decent imitation of the real thing. That's why I have such a positive reaction to the recording by the Williamson brothers: it's the real deal, and it features terrific musicianship and first-rate audio quality.
I agree that the D'Angelo CD is a winner (sorry, I'm not into bluegrass). Two other recent Mapleshade discs worth checking out are Consuella Lee's "Piano Voices" and Bob Kindred's "Gentle Giant of the Tenor Sax." The latter is a really in-your-face recording and a system-tester, IMO. If it sounds edgy or harsh, your system needs help.