Joe K. Walsh, who has collaborated with everyone from the Gibson Brothers to Darol Anger, is, to use a well-worn cliché, a musicians’ musician. He is a world-class mandolin player and accomplished composer and arranger whose formative influences run the gambit from Del McCoury to David Grisman.
Walsh, who serves on the faculty of the Berklee College of Music, operates in a hybrid stylistic zone similar to someone like, say, Bela Fleck. He is respectful of but not constrained by tradition. His artistic sensibility is predicated on adventurously—as his press material notes—“seeking to craft new music from old roots” and creating “new American roots music.” Herein, he plays not just mandolin but also mandola, octave mandolin and even drums.
An occasional drawback to so-called “cutting-edge” or “new age” music (both absurdly nebulous and ill-defined categories, I admit) is that it occasionally sacrifices soulfulness on the altar of inventiveness and virtuosity. That’s anything but the case with Walsh.
For starters, his original melodies on this instrumental collection are both sophisticated and deeply felt. He and his ensemble of equally inventive and adventurous musicians create arrangements that are complex and sophisticated yet, at the same time, graceful and organic.
“Madison,” the opening track, is a loping, jazzy shuffle that gradually builds to a dramatic crescendo. “When It’s Over” smolders with a poignant sense of loss and regret heightened by some remarkably subtle instrumental interplay. “Rosalind” is a similar tour de force.
On “Globe Thistle” the intricate interplay lapses into brief flashes of intriguing atonality and the overall emotional shading is, by turns, both playful and plaintive. The title tune (“If Not Now, Who [And If Not Us, When?]) conveys yearning, wistfulness and other mixed emotions.
Considering the powerful melodies, masterful arrangements and wonderful admixture of lofty virtuosity and emotional clarity, there’s genius at work here.