Mike Marshall: Braziliance

It may not be a clinical diagnosis, but Mike Marshall has an acute case of Brazil on the brain. The master string player has spent much of the past five years exploring various aspects of the South American nation’s vast treasure trove of music styles and collaborating with some of Brazil’s greatest musicians.

Married to noted klezmer fiddler Kaila Flexer, Marshall has been an important voice in new acoustic music for more than a quarter century. Since gaining fame with the original Dave Grisman Quintet in the late 1970s, he’s forged a brilliant path as a guitarist, mandolinist and fiddler, collaborating with luminaries such as Stephane Grappelli, Mark O’Connor, Joshua Bell and Tony Trischka. In many circles Marshall is best known for Uncommon Ritual, a ravishing 1997 Sony Classical album with Bela Fleck and bass virtuoso Edgar Meyer. He’s been particularly active with fiddler Darol Anger, his partner in a series of genre-bending projects, such as the thrilling neobluegrass bands NewGrange and Psychograss. (Their 1983 CD The Duo was just reissued by Rounder.)

But in recent years, Marshall’s musical passion has taken a southern turn. In 2003, he and Seattle-based pianist/composer Jovino Santos Neto, who spent 15 years in the band of Brazilian jazz avatar Hermeto Pascoal, released the exquisite session Serenata (Adventure), one of the first albums devoted to covering Pascoal’s music. The following year, he released Mike Marshall and Choro Famoso (Adventure), the result of his obsession with the instrumental Brazilian genre often compared to bluegrass.

He first heard choro via classic recordings by Jacob do Bandolim while touring with the Grisman Quintet. It wasn’t until his first trip to Brazil in 1995, however, that he experienced choro directly. Suddenly, he connected the intricate, oddly beguiling tunes he’d heard while riding in Grisman’s van with Rio de Janeiro string bands that combine the Brazilian gift for melodic invention with endlessly resourceful Afro-Brazilian syncopation. “I realized ‘Oh my God, that’s the sound!” Marshall says. “We knew about samba and bossa nova, and then to go to Brazil and discover this whole genre was just mind-blowing.”

Upon returning to the Bay Area, he started hosting jam sessions and studying the roots of choro. He documented his growing passion with Brasil Duets, a stellar series of instrumental encounters with artists such as Andy Narell, Bela Fleck, Edgar Meyer, Michael Manring and Jackie Rago that was recently reissued on Adventure. He also put together his own choro band, Choro Famoso, which performed around California in the late 1990s. The quintet, whose self-named CD finally came out in 2004 on Adventure, features Brazilian-born, Oakland-based guitarist Carlos Oliveira, clarinetist Andy Connell and percussionists Michael Spiro and Brian Rice, who specializes in the tambourinelike pandeiro, an essential choro component.

Oliveira notes that like jazz, choro was created through a fusion of European musical forms and African rhythms, though choro’s evolution began in the 1870s, several decades before jazz’s. “Choro music was originally a name for a bunch of different styles, polkas, waltzes, schottishes, all these forms that came from Europe,” says Oliveira, who grew up playing choro. “But because the musicians were so incredible they fused that with what was going on locally, the African rhythms and percussion instruments like the pandeiro. It’s similar to bluegrass, but bluegrass is more static rhythmically. Choro is still going strong and evolving, and a new generation is carrying it forward.”

Marshall has created alliances with some of the genre’s most exciting young stars, notably mandolinist Hamilton De Holanda, who is also one of Brazil’s leading composers. They recorded a duo album, New Words, and will be touring together this year after the album’s spring release on Adventure. Playing a custom-built 10-string bandolim, De Holanda is as comfortable exploring jazz standards as he is classic tunes by mandolin legend Jacob do Bandolim, who sparked a choro revival in the 1940 and ’50s with recordings now available in the U.S. on Dave Grisman’s Acoustic Disc.

“He’s a phenomenal musician on every level,” Marshall says. “Hamilton is about energy. When he walks on stage it’s like Jimi Hendrix or something. He learned all the Jacob de Bandolim stuff by the time he was eight. He sat in on jam sessions his whole life. But then he went to this place of understanding jazz and how to improvise over any kind of jazz harmonic motion. He’s capable of building a solo in a way that’s insanely exciting.”

Marshall’s interest in Brazilian music has also expressed itself through his involvement with Adventure Music, the label he founded with Richard Zirinsky Jr. in 2003. With more than two dozen releases, Adventure has not only documented Marshall’s various Brazilian projects, it’s provided national distribution and striking packaging to albums by guitarists Toninho Horta and Ricardo Silveira (whose 2004 release Noite Clara was nominated for a Latin Grammy award), saxophonist/flutist Antonio Arnedo and vocalists Claudia Villela and Maria Marquez. The label deserves considerable credit for reviving interest in 79-year-old composer/arranger Moacir Santos with the release of a two-CD anthology of gems from the 1960s and 70s, Ouro Negro. An album of Santos’ wonderfully playful jazz-tinged pieces produced by Mario Adnet and Ze Nogueira, Choros & Alegria, came out late last year, featuring a guest appearance by Wynton Marsalis.

This isn’t to say that Marshall is solely focused on Brazil. As usual, he and Anger are juggling a series of projects, including a collaboration with the Swedish string band Vasen and a classically oriented album with the female vocal ensemble Anonymous 4. He’ll be touring with Edgar Meyer again and joining the bassist with Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglas and Sam Bush for a week of seminars and a performance at Carnegie Hall in May. And he’ll be hitting the road with Nickel Creek mandolinist Chris Thile, with whom he recorded a romping session of duets on 2003’s Into the Cauldron (Sugar Hill). “He’s single-handedly responsible for spurring the mandolin renaissance in the States,” Marshall says of Thile. “He’s pushing the limits of the mandolin beyond anything I could have imagined.”