From beginnings in bluegrass, Marshall evolves

Mike Marshall takes genre-jumping to a whole new level.

From his modest and humble beginnings as a bluegrass picker, Marshalls career has grown into a life of musical improvisation, playing classical on bluegrass instruments while leading explorations in jazz, gypsy and swing. Since he began playing bluegrass music with David Grisman in the 1970s, he has gone on to play with many of the notable bluegrass musicians from this era, released records that have climbed the classical charts, played Carnegie Hall and most major bluegrass festivals and toured the world with mandolin in tow.

Marshall will perform Wednesday at the Community Concert Hall at Fort Lewis College with the Turtle Island Quartet, a San Francisco string band that formed in 1985.

Marshall has always been a musician looking to push his craft in new and numerous directions.

I always have been that way, going back to my first teacher of music, he said last week via Skype from Germany. From the get-go, he got me into playing lots of different kinds of music. We had a little teenage bluegrass band and started going around to all the festivals, but at the same time, he made sure I learned how to read music, had me playing classical music, Beatles tunes and rock and roll. Its been very natural for me to approach music with this open arm kind of approach.

That approach led Marshall to take his mandolin from bluegrass circles to playing jazz and swing, and eventually to writing classical arrangements for mandolin.

Ive always had this fevered idea that the mandolin could rule the world somehow, and Im still on that journey, he said.

This is a one-time engagement. Marshall, who divides his time between Northern California and Germany, is flying in, meeting his showmates, performing and then splitting.

The Turtle Island Quartet includes David Balakrishnan on violin, Mark Summer on cello, Mads Tolling on violin and Jeremy Kittel on viola. The group is regarded as the first string quartet to achieve major commercial success with its cross of jazz, funk and classical and are likely to play original compositions or cover a range of artists including John Coltrane and Jimi Hendrix.

Its the perfect pairing for Marshall, who first met the quartet in the late 80s when he was playing with fiddler Darol Anger. Hes psyched to play with them.

Theyve paved the way for a new way of thinking of a string quartet, Marshall said. Its a remarkable band.Everybody in the group can swing their butts off. Its a deep well of talent, so to finally get to play with them after knowing them all these years is a delight. Were having a ball.

Just because the musicians are in chairs reading sheet music doesnt make it a classical event. Classical fans will appreciate the musicianship but jam band people can spin to the improvisation. Classic rock fans may enjoy their take on the familiar.

Its very hard to call this show classical music. Were wearing string quartet hats, but were funking it up like crazy with these guys, Marshall said.

Bryant Liggett is a freelance writer and KDUR station manager.