Award-winning trio’s instrumental skills reach a virtuosic level amidst humour and hard work.
Over the past two decades, Andrew Collins has become almost ubiquitous in Toronto’s new acoustic/bluegrass scene.
Collins is renowned for his mandolin wizardry, starting in the late ’90s with the newgrass/jazz-inflected Creaking Tree Quartet, but also including projects such as the Foggy Hogtown Boys, Annie Lou, and currently his own trio, which until the last album was totally instrumental. He is also in demand as a producer for bands such as the Lonesome Ace Stringband, the Unseen Strangers, and indie rocker Elana McMurtry.
But with the trio’s new double album, Tongue and Groove, Collins has really found his voice. Tongue is totally vocal tunes, while Groove is a collection of instrumentals, mostly composed by Collins. Complete with slick harmonies, the trio covers everything from the jazz standard Just A Gigolo to Nick Drake’s Cello Song to the old Hollies chestnut King Midas in Reverse.
“One-third of our live show is vocal tunes, and at set breaks people would ask what album has the vocal material. We had nothing to give them. The original concept was to do just vocal covers, but as the time for recording was approaching I said we’re known as an instrumental group, so I got writing.”
Collins has also contributed a few songs of his own to Tongue, including a bouncy swing tune, I Drink Whiskey and My Gal Drinks Wine, and his own take on Long Black Veil.
While Collins is a very serious musician, with dozens of complex, intricate compositions under his belt, he feels that part of the mandate of the trio is to be entertaining as well as enlightening. That includes throwing a little humour into the mix, and hence the inclusion of two Roger Miller songs on this recording.
Collins, who says he has a struggle with songwriting as opposed to instrumental composition, marvels at Miller’s prowess with words. “He never wasted a word. He was super-economical in his songwriting, so every word says a lot. Very few words give a huge picture.”
But make no mistake, Collins’s playing, always virtuosic, has hit a new level, especially with his tone, a subtle but vital part of high-level mandolin playing. Getting the fullest, woodiest sound out of a small instrument is an art in itself, and one that not all players achieve. He credits being part of the trio for this result, especially the light and subtle playing of guitarist Mike Mezzatesta, which has inspired him to work harder on his technique and approach the instrument with a lighter touch.
“There was a time when I wasn’t practising mandolin as much as I had, maybe a little burned out,” Collins says. “But a few years ago my passion was re-ignited… I’ve been practising more in the last few years than I had in the past 10 years.”
As much as he is in demand in the Toronto new acoustic and bluegrass scene, Collins is putting most of his energy, and just about all of his touring plans, into the trio. He knew from the start he had a magic combination as soon as they found one another.
“From our first long tour to Australia, the growth of the unit became palpable. I never wanted to be a band leader, but the interplay between the three of us has gotten so tight… It becomes this entity where the sum is greater than the parts. We know each other’s playing so well. The material is challenging, but it becomes easy; you don’t have to think.”
The trio is partly the result of a friendly musician swap with another Toronto acoustic band, The Unseen Strangers, whose albums Collins has produced. The Strangers gave the OK to Mezzatesta playing with Collins, and he gave his blessing to bassist James McEleney playing with the Strangers.
Collins was somewhat of a late bloomer, not picking up the mandolin until he was 23, which is just about half of his life. He was living in Whistler, BC, being a high-level skier, which he credits as a stepping stone to music because of the effort he put into it. He had seen David Grisman in concert a few years earlier, and was blown away with mandolin for the first time. When he finally did buy an entry-level mandolin one summer, he couldn’t put it down, and was practising eight hours a day. When winter came, he realized that he was getting the same charge out of the mandolin that he got from skiing, and he could do it all year round.
“After six months of working on the mandolin I knew I would do it for the rest of my life.” The Grisman influence basically got into his genes. From early on, he learned the master mandolinist’s tunes and borrowed his riffs, and that bug has never left. In fact, the final track on the Groove disc, one of the few he didn’t compose, is Grisman’s Dawg Grass.
He moved to Vancouver, teamed up with banjo player Jayme Stone, who has also carved out a great career, and they busked every day at the Granville Market. Eventually he moved back to Toronto, which had more of a burgeoning acoustic scene, getting together with his old high-school buddy Chris Coole and other players and scoring a regular Wednesday night gig at the Silver Dollar as bluegrass became popular with O Brother Where Art Thou?
While his playing progressed quickly with all the practice, busking, and gigging, he still had doubts whether he could be a full-time professional musician. “During my first year, I still wondered whether it was a stupid thing to do because I was starting so late. But then I was told that Wes Montgomery started in his late 20s.” (The late jazz guitarist’s official bio says he started when he was 19, still relatively late).
But Collins is living proof that it’s never too late to start, as long as you’re willing to put the work in. And keep working at it.