You've probably never heard of Andrea Zonn. Until a copy of Love Goes On showed up in my mailbox, neither had I. Her press release calls her "Nashville's secret weapon" because she has played on so many major performers' albums. Her credits include work with Alison Krauss, Lyle Lovett, Trisha Yearwood, and Vince Gill. The daughter of Paul Martin Zonn, chair of musical theory and composition department at the University of Illinois, Andrea grew up surrounded by music, and began playing violin at the age of 5. By 10 Andrea was competing in fiddle contests. At 16 Zonn emigrated to Nashville where she began playing on studio sessions. In 1990 she joined Vince Gill's band, and 13 years later is still a member.
Unlike many studio aces and "sidemen" whose solo albums showcase their technical skills, Love Goes On zeros in on Zonn's singing and arranging. Instead of original compositions she chooses songs from A-list writers like Beth Neilson Chapman, Karla Bonoff, Tom Kimmel, Don Poythress, Craig Carothers, Neil Finn, Leslie Satcher, and Paul Brady. Love Goes On highlights Zonn's ability to interpret great songs for maximum emotional and musical impact. Although much of what Zonn has done professionally has been in a country musical idiom, Love Goes On is far more mainstream pop than country. The opening track, Beth Neilson Chapman's "Heads Up for the Wrecking Ball," begins with syncopated drums followed by a pulsing violin line. That's certainly not the sort of arrangement you'll find on a country CD. Along with her marvelously seductive voice, Zonn contributes violin, viola, and chin cello. Other musicians on Love Goes On include Steven Sheehan on acoustic guitar, Tom Britt on electric guitar, Alison Brown on banjo, John Jarvis on piano, Tim O'Brien and Trent Truitt on mandolin, John Garner on drums, and Alison Krauss, Amy Grant, Marcus Hummon, Jeff White, Darrell Scott, Billy Thomas, John Randall Stewart, Jeff White, and Vince Gill on backing vocals.
The hallmarks of a modern pop album are the lush production values. Love Goes On delivers the required suave sophisticated sonics. Complicated mixes retain the instruments' individual voices in complex musical textures. Mixed by veteran studio pro Dave Sinko and mastered by Randy LeRoy at Final Stage in Nashville, TN, Love Goes On has the same level sound quality you'd expect from a multi-platinum big-budget major label release.
Love Goes On satisfies on many levels. With superb songs, expertly arranged and performed, delivered with great feeling and musicality. In the end the only disappointing thing about Love Goes On is to realize that it's Andrea Zonn's only solo release.
Sugar Hill Records kill me. During the last month they've put out not one, but two great instrumental albums. Both showcase the work of musical virtuosi, but while one highlights a traditional musical form, the other takes you to the very limits of acoustic music.
Bryan Sutton's second Sugar Hill release, conservatively titled Bluegrass Guitar, showcases his prodigious picking. Accompanied by fellow hotshots Tim O'Brien on mandolin, Dennis Crouch on bass, David Talbot on banjo, and Tim Crouch on fiddle, Sutton tears through traditional tunes such as "Hangman's Reel," "Daley's Reel," "Big Sandy River," "Margeret's Waltz," "High Heel Shoe," and "Beaumont Rag". Not content with merely addressing fiddle tunes, Sutton also takes on a the bluegrass staple, Bill Monroe's "Roanoke," and the early country classic A.P. Carter's "The Storms are on the Ocean", Contemporary tunes by Bela Fleck, "Whippersnapper," and Tim O'Brien, "The High Road," join Sutton's original "Nelia's Dance" to complete the album's roster. Sutton's guitar playing demonstrates you can be fast clean and melodically creative while still honoring traditional forms and styles. For any guitar player who thinks that nothing new can come of staying within the realm of classic melodic invention, Suttons' playing will be a revelation.
Equally revelatory, but for entirely different reasons, Mike Marshall and Chris Thile's Into the Cauldron, takes you to the far edges of melody and structure with flights of musical fancy where only a few exceptional musical minds can travel. Drawing from musical sources as disparate as J.S. Bach and Charlie Parker, this mandolin duo deconstructs then rebuilds familiar and traditional music into crystal palaces. Both players have the virtuosity to be able to play anything they can think of, and their imaginations know hardly any boundaries. Take their interpretation of the traditional fiddle tune "Fisher's Hornpipe." After one straight pass of the basic tune, they are off into improvisational realms visited by few others. Not limited by only melodic improvisation, Marshall and Thile, also dissect the rhythms and the interior form of the tune, laying harmonies on top of each other's melodically idiosyncratic lines with impossible effortlessness. Throughout Into the Cauldron it feels as if you are eavesdropping on a musical conversation between two geniuses. As with most erudite interchanges, first listen only allows partial comprehension of what you're hearing. Each subsequent listening further illuminates the subtleties of their musical interchange.
Sonically Bluegrass Guitar and Into the Cauldron are as far apart as they are musically. Bluegrass Guitar has a warm intimate studio ambience while Into the Cauldron tries to put some distance between the instruments and their environment. Personally I find the sound on Bluegrass Guitar much more to my liking. Into the Cauldron tries too hard to artificially create a sense of big room remembrance that fights with the intimate nature of the music. The end result is a synthetic environment that detracts from rather than adds to the musical experience. The sound on Bluegrass Guitar never gets between the listener and the music.
Bluegrass Guitar and Into the Cauldron are both "must have" releases, but for very different reasons. Bluegrass Guitar shows you how through exploration of time-honored tunes and musical forms allows the discovery of new, but traditionally consistent, interpretations. Into the Cauldron displays the scope of musical invention possible when no limitations are placed on improvisation.