Mark O’Connor’s original flatpicking guitar album Markology, recorded after winning Winfield twice as a teenager, inspired countless bluegrass guitarists. Backed by Tony Rice, Dan Crary and Sam Bush on a couple of tracks, O’Connor simply leapt off the recording into every flatpicker’s consciousness, eventually landing the role of filling Tony Rice’s guitar chair in the David Grisman Quintet. Mel Bay even published a transcription book done by John Carlini to help aspiring contest participants learn Mark’s classic “Dixie Breakdown” arrangement and others from the CD. And we heard sometimes note-perfect renditions in contests for many years.
Markology II might just have a similar impact. Recording as a solo artist playing his trusty herringbone Martin D-28, a John Baxendale dreadnought, and a vintage Gibson mandocello, O’Connor shows that he still has seriously amazing chops and influence even in the Workman/Tuttle/Strings world of modern flatpicking.
Here’s what no less than Bela Fleck has to say. “…a bit stunned at the bravado of his guitar playing is capable of (including that bit of jealousy I have over how well this guy’s hands work!) Great tone he pulls from his instruments leaves us mortal musicians in awe!”
Over 10 tracks, all played as a solo artist, O’Connor takes contest flatpicking into the realm of Al DeMiola or John McLaughlin on their amazing Friday Night In San Francisco live CD. Chromatic lines race the ebony highway of his instruments as a velocity often not to be believed.
Mark all but quit playing guitar or mandolin for years because he felt the heavier, roundwound strings were creating callouses that interfered with his intonation on violin. But in the past several years with the Mark O’Connor Band, he’s resurrected those skills, and it clearly shows this, like on “Frailing” where one would swear he’d overdubbed a low part. His pick control is incredible, along with his left-hand technique and range, especially since he laid off guitar for decades.
The music here ranges from warp speed classics like “Alabama Jubilee” and “Beaumont Rag” to his glorious arrangement of “Shenandoah” played on a vintage Gibson mandocello. Filled with lovely chord extensions and color notes, O’Connor uses his extensive experience in neo-classical music to shape this standard into a unique expression of his musical voice.
If I were to add a criticism, it that it would have been nice to hear him play a couple of these tunes with other players like he did on the original release. And the slower tunes based on lovely standards like “Going Home” and “Greensleeves” take such liberties with the melody it can be hard to find it amidst his technical proficiency.
But that’s a critique of Mark’s artistic vision, not the caliber of the playing here. A must-own for all fans of great bluegrass flatpicking, I’ll be shocked if this release doesn’t earn him a nomination for IBMA “Guitar Player of the Year.” This is a great player at the very top of his form.