The latest recording from mandolinist Johnny Staats and guitarist Robert Shafer is one characterized by all of the usual superlatives expressing expert musicianship, but perhaps more than that by the aural surprises the duo offer here. If you scan the track list, you might not think so. The majority of the songs included are standards. For every “La Gitana” and “Gypsy Waltz,” both of which are brilliantly performed and somewhat outside the mainstream, there are a handful of standards such as “Leather Britches,” “Big Mon,” “Jerusalem Ridge,” “Grey Eagle,” and “Texas Gallop.” Staats also sings a couple of standards, “Banks Of The Ohio” and “By The Side Of The Road.” Again, both nicely done.
Where the surprises come are in the many flourishes and twists that the pair bring to these old songs. The challenge is that these flourishes cannot be just flourishes. In other words, the entire solo cannot just be a series of hot licks or musical digressions having only a vague tie to the tune at hand. Staats and Shafer both succeed here, not by wowing you with their technical skill (though that certainly does happen), but by placing their sudden bursts of triplets and floating passages, odd scale ideas, and slides and rhythmic alterations in contrast to the melody at hand. The tune is never completely lost. It may disappear for short spells, but it always returns. Their version of “Jerusalem Ridge” is a good example of this. The ideas and variations flow out, but you never forget what song you’re hearing. Backing the pair is bassist Davey Vaughn, along with percussionist Rachel Reynolds on one track. (www.johnnystaats.com)BW