Thursday, January 06, 2005

An Encounter with Greatness (For musicians only) 
Through a mutual friend, I had the honor of having dinner with Byron Berline this evening.

Mr. Berline, a veteran of Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys, is arguably the greatest bluegrass fiddle player ever. A legend.

He's an Oklahoma alumnus, and happened to be in town to watch his team get spanked by the Trojans in the Orange Bowl.

(editor's note: Heh, heh, heh.)

Of course, near the end of the evening someone pulled out a fiddle and a mandolin and we stepped outside and off we went.

Mostly I just stood aside, shut up, and listened and learned. Every bar he played was an education for me.

After a couple of tunes, he handed me the fiddle and asked me to play a couple of tunes.

There was no way I was going to impress this guy with chops. He's seen it all and can play it all. It's like trying to impress Bruce Lee with my Kung Foo. No freakin' way.

I decided to stay very much within myself. Much better to be musical than technical. I selected a very minimalist, pulsating, catchy setting of "Toss the Feathers" I often play. It sounds very modal and ancient. Followed by a conservative rendition of "Collier's Reel," which is a strong enough tune you just have to play it, and let the composition speak for itself.

Naturally, I played as though I were afflicted with an extra chromosome. Funny how it works out. I would have been better off playing something technical. So I got to the end of the set not a moment too soon, and handed the fiddle back to the sensei. And shut up and listened to some more tunes as he played some bluegrass and old time standards with a mandolin player.

Lots of guys can solo. The true measure of greatness is how is the guy when someone ELSE is being featured. I mean, any dog can chase cars. The smart ones know how to get out of the way of oncoming traffic.

The sensei was the best accompanist on the fiddle I've ever seen. A lot of fiddlers would just play chops. Not Berline. Light and pulsating on the bow, all he wanted to do was bring out the best in the tune, and make the mandolin player - a mere mortal like me - sound good.

Negative capability at its finest. Not a trace of ego to him. When you're that good, you're above ego. You're beyond ego. You are a servant to the music. That's greatness.

He handed me the fiddle again, and this time I played much better - a couple of jigs at a moderate, musical tempo.* (This time I didn't suck so hard, and so it was not neccessary for me to proceed to the local Pilot service station and turn five dollar tricks for the truckers to regain my sense of self-esteem.)

With great relief, I handed the fiddle back to the sensei, and just watched like a grasshopper as the sensei took me to school with a couple more tunes.

Every eighth note swung just the perfect, slightest amount - a pulsing detail only a very few musicians would even notice, and only the very best can ever emulate. His control over his bow was startling - and apparent in just a few notes.

He was easygoing, gracious, generous with his time, and expressed an interest in me and my playing as well, and tried to draw me out.

He also stood up everytime his wife stood up, and pushed the chair in for her every time she sat down.

His musicianship was an outgrowth of his personality, and his personality an outgrowth of his musicianship. I've never seen such a seemless melding.

A true class act as a musician, and a gentleman, who taught me more by example than you can ever know.

Thank you, Mr. Berline.

A jig is a traditional Irish form in 6/8. It got better after the mandolin player stopped trying to comp it in 4/4. (What is it with bluegrassers, anyway?

If you follow along in the program, it was "The Connaughtman's Rambles" followed by "The Merry Pitchfork."


Nice post. I dropped in at the John Martin on Dec. 18th and met Paddy, who said you should be playing there on Jan. 29th.

Hope to see you there.

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