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Looking Back by Phillips Grier & Flinner

Skill and joy are in amply evidence on Phillips, Grier & Flinner’s sophomore release on Compass Records, Looking Back, the much-anticipated follow-up to their 1999 self-entitled debut. As on that first disc, Looking Back follows the lead of such acoustic luminaries as David Grisman and Oregon. Bluegrass and folk music may be their starting point, but there are much jazz and jazz influence here, too, many moods and textures, and excellent soloing by bassist, guitarist and mandolinist each. The trio’s selection of classic old-time stomps and spirituals mixed with less likely additions to the repertoire build interesting bridges between the past and present states of acoustic music.

PGF breaks in their bluegrass fans gently with two bright, sprightly Bill Monroe numbers. "Tennessee Blues" and "Monroe’s Hornpipe" feature the fleet fretwork, cascading chromatics and high lonesome harmonies. On the former, mandolinist Flinner tackles the tricky head without breaking a sweat, then passes the baton on to Grier, whose guitar canters along to Phillips’ loping bass line. The latter is an irrepressible jig that immediately brings to mind mountain men and moonshine.

"I Am A Pilgrim" continues in this traditional vein. It’s slow and bluesy and nice change of pace. With plenty of space for each musician to stretch, it becomes a deconstruction: In the first few choruses, each player’s role remains the same as on the previous two tracks, but then the lines blur as each ventures further into and out of the tune. Grier and Phillips in particular add interesting dissonances and rhythmic quirks, suggesting they could go on forever and never repeat themselves.

Things really take off with "Afro Blue." Sparkley and shimmering, the intro - sounding right off an album by Oregon - leads into one of the most arresting segments on Looking Back: Phillips’ rendering of the haunting, twilit melody. The bassist plays it straight twice, but with the cold clarity of an alpine tarn and the shades of mystery such depths contain. He then launches into a short, swinging variant that leads Grier and Flinner into wicked solos. At one point, they seem headed for a spacey jam-band groove, but they cut off and contain that alternative universe in one concise allusion. Flinner’s solo is informed by rock, jam-band, jazz, Latin and blues, but never loosing that slightly sinister backwoods bluegrass edge. Towards the end, Iberian trills and flutters heighten the Old World exotic effect of the piece.

Track 5 offers another surprise: "Search for Peace," a lovely ballad by jazz pianist McCoy Tyner. Flinner takes the melody, floating high above the clouds. Then Grier gets his hands on it and sculpts fascinating forms the way air and moisture combine to create billowing cumuli. Phillips, then, must be the Earth - solidly grounded, always present, always changing and always influencing what’s going on high overhead.

"Dixie Hoedown" brings back more mad bluegrass, just to remind whence we came, and "Old Dangerfield," another tune by Papa Monroe, rattles up like a pick-up on a dusty road before the last two tracks leap forward again with extended readings of Jimi Hendrix’s "Little Wing" and Lennon/McCartney’s "I Want You (She’s So Heavy)." Grier’s solo introduction to "Little Wing" is a tiny masterpiece all of its own, containing the many dimensions of the song to come. Flinner’s take on the tune is backed up by a groove laid by his cohorts that wavers magically between the country-Western and the Latin. Phillips’ chorus is again rich and clear, swinging, earthy, inventive, all without ever straying far from the melody. Grier then sends it with a heartfelt solo, full of technical mastery and good old gut-wrenching blues-rock sensibility.

After the preceding eight tracks, the Beatles’ "I Want You" seems a natural selection for a bluegrass/newgrass (bopgrass?) disc. Flinner takes John Lennon’s vocal line, Grier deftly handles George Harrison’s organ-like guitar middle voice, Phillips gets down on Paul’s bass line, and something of Ringo’s percussive spirit comes out between the three of them. After a straight-ahead take and the "She’s So Heavy" bridge, the jamming starts, with grooves that travel and stretch, plenty of soloing space, and rhythmic variations that flatter, flirt and flaunt. Inevitably, the bridge returns like the sobering realization that this object of obsession will remain unattainable forever.

Of course, interpretations like that are subject to individual tastes and experiences of the music. But Looking Back is full enough to allow anyone to entertain whatever fanciful reading one wishes, and that certainly a hallmark of excellent music.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Phillips Grier & Flinner
  • CD Title: Looking Back
  • Genre: Folk Jazz
  • Year Released: 2002
  • Record Label: Compass
  • Rating: Four Stars
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