"With six people, you have to really listen so you don't step on what the others are doing," says multi-instrumentalist and lead vocalist Tim O'Brien. "It's interesting in New Grange. Everyone is very gracious. As a result, it's very natural and tasteful."
Banjo player Alison Brown agrees. "(With six), there are a lot of people vying for the sonic space. One thing that's great about New Grange is everybody listens to everybody else, not trying to take more than their share."
New Grange started out as a holiday project by fiddler Darol Anger and mandolin/guitarist Mike Marshall. The two decided to pull together a group of friends, record a Christmas album, and do a quick tour. Originally called the Heritage Band, Anger and Marshall recruited O'Brien and Brown, bassist Todd Phillips and Philip Aaberg on piano.
They all had so much fun on the tour that each decided to carve out time from their busy schedules for more get-togethers. That's when they formally named the band New Grange.
"We'd learned about each other's personality on the tour," says O'Brien. "(We discovered) certain things that we do, we wanted to go further with."
The band's collective pedigree is long and sometimes convoluted in the number of ways these players have crossed paths for years. Anger and Marshall were in Montreux and play as a duet; Anger, Marshall and Phillips were members of the Dave Grisman Quintet and Psychograss. Anger's career also includes the Turtle String Quartet, while Marshall had four albums on Windham Hill and founded the Modern Mandolin Quartet. Aaberg was also a Windham Hill artist, equally at home with jazz, modern and classical styles.
Phillips went on to play with the Tony Rice Unit, and has a lengthy list of studio credits. Brown and O'Brien knew each other through years of bluegrass festivals. O'Brien formed Hot Rize and its alter-ego, Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers, in the late '70s. Later he both went solo and teamed up with his sister, Mollie O'Brien.
Brown was a "banjoholic" investment banker with an MBA from Cornell, who left corporate life 12 years ago to pursue her passion for music. She soon found herself playing with Alison Krauss as a member of Union Station, and later toured with Michelle Shocked before going solo. Along the way, Brown and producer Garry West formed Compass Records. New Grange and Brown both record on the label.
The line-up is made more exotic with the addition of Aaberg's piano, taking it away from the realm of a traditional string band. Asked about the choice of a pianist for the sixth member, Brown has a quick response.
"If you look at New Grange as a string band with a piano player in it, Phil does look like the odd man out," she says. "But if you look at the genesis of the group, he was one of the original piano players signed to Windham Hill, and he, Mike and Darol did a lot of the Winter Solstice tours, which was kind of the roots for the Heritage tour. So Phil was kind of there before Tim and I were.
"Another way of looking at it," she adds, "is that half of this band brings strong classical chamber chops, based around reinventing American string music. Phil comes out of a real classical background too, so even though he's kind of an Americana pianist, he can sit down and blow through classical stuff like nobody's business. He's really got a deep musical background."
O'Brien agrees that Aaberg adds a certain magic to the sound. "The piano kind of mimics everything," he notes. "It can mimic the whole band. Sometimes he takes a smaller role, sometimes he reinforces the whole sound. A five-piece bluegrass group has a natural division of labor. The road map was laid out by the early bluegrass bands. Phil is very unusual in that he really understands the concept of a bluegrass sound."
On Brown's latest album, a solidly traditional bluegrass collection entitled Fair Weather, all of New Grange (except Aaberg) guest. Other guests include Vince Gill, Béla Fleck, Sam Bush and Stuart Duncan. The album features lots of fast picking and furious solos.
New Grange, on the other hand, has a unique, almost delicate sound. The music is more about playing together than virtuosity. An example of the New Grange approach is a version of the folk standard "Handsome Molly," in which Marshall's arrangement takes the simple, three-chord song and expands its rhythms and harmonies with unexpected time changes, graceful suspensions and major sevenths.
"I think he did a brilliant rearrangement," says Brown. "There's lots of odd meter bars and beautiful changes. When it comes to a solo, you can still pretty much play what you want, but Mike knew what he wanted on that tune."
"With ensemble playing, it's a greater-good-of-the-band sound," O'Brien agrees. "It's pretty much an equal presentation. You don't want to serve up too much."
The blending of styles and the superb musicianship of each member certainly makes New Grange special, but their interest in and ability to listen to one another on stage and in the studio sets them apart. "The thing about New Grange is everyone gets to do a different thing than they normally do," O'Brien enthuses. "Everybody looks at it is as a special event."
"New Grange is something we all do because we enjoy it," says Brown.