The duo of composer/multi-instrumentalist Jesse Jones and bassist Craig Butterfield — who are set to release their third duo album, Eclipse, this Saturday — is one marked by both innovation and expectation.
The two met while on faculty at the University of South Carolina’s School of Music and quickly bonded over their love of roots music in addition to their rich classical backgrounds. The two soon conspired to join the movement of artists like Chris Thile and Bela Fleck who were forging a new repertoire for bluegrass instrumentation like banjo and mandolin in the chamber music world.
“Those are some of our favorite artists, like people like Bela Fleck, Chris Thile, Edgar Meyer, Sam Bush, Mike Marshall,” explains Butterfield. “We were both kind of steeped in this music. We’ve been listening to that kind of music our whole lives and it influenced how we play our instruments quite a bit.”
Jones agrees, though he describes the mandolin “sort of as a hobby” that he took up after breaking his arm and being sidelined from the piano.
“I’ve always had the mandolin and guitar and banjo floating around sort of in the periphery of my musical career, musically creative life,” he says.
Jones identifies as a classical composer first, with the influence of this other tradition lurking in the background.
“I think everything that I’ve learned to do as a composer sort of naturally went into compositions for mandolin and banjo and such,” he reasons.
Of the two, it’s Jones’ description that’s more telling, as what the duo does is genuinely indebted more to chamber music than bluegrass, both in its compositional complexity and nuanced approach to dynamics and timbre.
“Finding a partnership with Craig, someone who could assimilate my tunes quite quickly and then come up with counterpoint lines, or add sections to tunes that I could then create counterpoint lines to [was important],” Jones comments. “We’re really jointly composing, and I think our added background in classical and jazz and roots music really combined into something that’s been quite fruitful.”
When the two started out, though, the shadow cast by bassist Edgar Meyer and mandolin player Chris Thile was sizable. The two MacArthur-winning virtuosos have already collaborated numerous times together, making the odd instrumental famous and seemingly more singular in the process
“Of course it’s huge. I mean, in my opinion, these are some of the greatest musicians alive today and they have this duo with the same basic instrumentation,” Butterfield admits. “It’s kind of a double-edged sword. [But] it’s inspirational to us, because they’re fantastic composers and players.”
“I’m of the opinion that I will never be Chris Thile,” agrees Jones dryly. “I’ve just tried to focus on the things that I can do well and, you know, my own particular skill set. My mandolin playing doesn’t match up to Thile, but I do have other things that I’m well trained in and I try to put that in the duo.”
And on Eclipse, this often means Jones has a mandolin in his hands less and less, with guitar, banjo, piano and an octave mandolin bringing an increasingly broad palette to the proceedings. Jones also notes that Butterfield’s distinctive talent also changes the dynamic.
“Craig can play way the hell up there on the bass with the bow,” he explains. “So he’s got all this like pit stuff with the timbre of the mandolin, but also can then sort of take over sort of a violin range above me. So even though I am the treble instrument, Craig is often playing above me. I think that the skills Craig brings on the bass makes the duo work in a way that it probably wouldn’t otherwise.”
The two also compose together jointly, particularly on the last two albums, despite Jones now holding a position at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio and Butterfield still working at USC. The distance makes for an interesting dynamic.
“Jesse will often send me just an audio file of an idea he’s working on — he’ll record it and send it to me with no written explanation or note or anything,” Butterfield explains. “I love that, and it’s actually happened several times now with different compositions, because I’m hearing it in a total different way than he is. I mean, even in a different time signature then he was intending. Whereas if he had written it out and said, ‘OK, I have this idea in 3/4 time and this key, and I’m hearing this for you,’ it would lock me in right away.”
As for growing or expanding beyond the two-person lineup, both are interested, but feel constrained by scheduling and time more than anything.
“We’ve talked about it a lot, but it just comes down to logistics,” Butterfield says. “I think it’s hard enough for us to get together with our teaching schedules and are performing schedules, that just adding a third variable into that equation, it would make it almost impossible.”
“At least for now, I think that the concept is to continue as the duo,” Jones agrees. “I think we’re interested also in just seeing, you know, how far that, like, our boundaries can be pushed. I feel like each album has, has pushed some boundaries that we weren’t comfortable with before. And so, how far can that go with the duo?”
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