Kenny Blackwell and Dorian Michael, Kenny Blackwell / Dorian Michael (Nightjar Music, 2002)

Mandolinist Kenny Blackwell and guitarist Dorian Michael have released an exciting, fast-paced recording that shows off their instrumental and writing abilities. I have thoroughly enjoyed listening to it and recommend it to anyone who likes acoustic music with the flavors of bluegrass, blues, western swing, old-timey, jazz, and even a nod to the Irish. The compositions are very strong and Blackwell's and Michael's writing styles compliment one another as do their playing styles.

Kenny Blackwell is the more straight forward of the two -- a wonderful solid mandolin picker with obviously a few years under his belt. Dorian Michael has apparently spent some time playing loud guitars in various settings and he brings an edge to his acoustic playing that I like a lot. I hope he never loses that edge. There are only a couple of spots that provided 95% satisfaction - both times with the slower selections. I'll explain later.

Blackwell and Michael, along with their back up band, get off to a zippy start with "El Morro" written by Michael. The first few bars start with Blackwell and Michael in a nice, tight harmony, then the rhythm section (Bill Severance on drums and Piper Heisig on bass) hops on the bus and sends the tune rolling. Not unlike some of that dawg music David Grisman has made so famous.

"The Road to Somewhere" keeps up the pace and the happy mood established with the opening cut. Both Blackwell and Michael move effortlessly from lead to rhythm and back again, throwing the melody back and forth then joining forces before you even know what's happened. I like their preference for accenting those upbeats in this tune -- an approach that is taken on most of the faster pieces.

"Fairfield" presents the first of the few slower tunes in this collection. I like this composition written by Michael a lot, but I don't think they brought out the best in it. The musicians, lead and rhythm alike, seem a bit heavy handed and not as confident and comfortable as with the fast tunes. It just needed to lighten up a little. However, they are back in the comfort zone again for "Blowing Smoke". The added percussion was an excellent choice to the arrangement.

I'm a sucker for a good waltz, and "Pour Un Gitane" is a winner. The playing on this slower-paced piece has a bit more finesse than track #3 and it swings nicely all the way through. This could end up being a standard for future players.

"Farewell to Glendalough" brings a texture and style change with the introduction on the bodhran by guest Tom Mooney. And when Gabe Witcher adds chimes in with the fiddle we find ourselves knee deep in the Irish sound. The fiddle and mandolin make the melody clear, then Michael moves in with a bluesy solo. He cannot suppress that electric guitar heritage, and that's a good thing! It's great left turn.

"Lonesone Moonlight Waltz" by Bill Monroe takes the next slot. This is another one where the drums seem a little heavy to me -- everything else is great. There's another great guitar solo by Michael and it's nice to hear the fiddle again. Sweet.

Blackwell steps to the front on "Little Rabbit," a tune that will be familiar to a lot of you traditional music fans. But wait, here comes Michael on that guitar slipping in those bent notes again! Another nice new flavor with a good supporting banjo by Tom Sauber.

The next song is another traditional tune called "Southwind". I have to pick nits here. It's not a bad arrangement or bad playing by any means, but the players seem uncomfortable again with the slow speed -- this time more so with Michael than Blackwell. Maybe it also has to do with a song that has been played by so many people over the years. With a tune as famous in folk music circles as "Take the A Train" is in jazz circles, I personally want to hear an extraordinary arrangement, otherwise I think it should be reserved for the live performance repertoire.

The duo's soul comes alive on "Propane Blues". Dorian Michael leans into the National Resophonic guitar with great conviction and it's nice to hear some bluesy stuff on Blackwell's mandolin. Kevin McCracken joins the band with some smooth moves on harmonica.

"One Without the Other" is a beautiful duet between Blackwell and Michael. OK, this time they got it! A slower piece composed by Michael that is just right. They were wise to make it a duet and not add the bass and drums. It keeps it light and sweet and emphasizes their ability to play organically together. This is a lovely, dreamy tune.

The last cut, "Sonnie's Stomp" is a fabulous way to end this solid recording. Written by both Blackwell and Michael, it is simply a fun, driving acoustic/rock/country tune. A great vehicle to show off their soloing abilities -- they toss those phrases back and forth like a ping pong ball. You can't help but smile.

[Barb Truex]

This CD is available through the duo's Web site