Back to Back
It’s hard believe that Jethro Burns and Tiny Moore hadn’t met each other until the rehearsal for the 1979 session that yielded Back to Back. You’d think the two master mandolinists, both 59 at the time, would have crossed paths long before producer and fellow mandolinist David Grisman called on the pair for this fascinating date. And they play such perfect foils against each other that you’d never guess they had just been introduced.
No doubt the contrasting timbres of Burns’ traditional eight-string acoustic ax and Moore’s five-string electric lend much to the music’s success. The unison vamps that abound throughout the album benefit from the tonal tension, hitting hardest and most memorably on Burns’ intervallic feast “Flickin’ My Pick.” From the start, a percolating take on the Wes Montgomery-penned title track, Burns and Moore finish each other’s phrases and take melodies in tandem and alternate taking breaks for the other to deliver a punch of a solo, working like a comedy duo in the midst of a long-studied routine. But the presence of the flexible and always on-the-spot rhythm section is as responsible for this easygoing roots-flavored summit: bassist Ray Brown, drummer Shelly Manne and ace Western Swing session guitarist Eldon Shamblin.
Wending through a 41-minute set that includes lovely and surprising reinventions of Ellington, Reinhardt-Grappelli, Lester Young and Gillespie tunes, plus a handful of originals by Moore and Burns, the quintet makes perhaps the strongest and loveliest case on record for the inclusion of mountain-man instrumentation in jazz. But Grisman found another 42 minutes of alternate takes that mirror the first disc track-by-track. And that’s where the fascination begins.
While Grisman indeed selected the “correct” takes for the album’s original release, disc two parallels the first’s crisp, tightly wrought arrangements with more exploratory fare. In some instances either version of the song likely could have been the definitive one. The group’s paced swing through Bill Monroe’s “Moonlight Waltz”—one of three tracks where Grisman himself steps into the fold—remains a highlight on the second disc, as it is on the first. Plus, fly-on-the-studio-wall moments render disc two all the more enjoyable. Beating Paris Hilton to the punch a full two years before the party girl was born, Burns ends a rehearsal take by remarking on the slight reverb added to his tone: “That’s hot.”