Mandolinist David Grisman is no stranger to playing intimate music with guitarists, having previously released duo albums with Tony Rice, Martin Taylor, Doc Watson, and Jerry Garcia. But on their first recording together, Grisman and guitarist Tommy Emmanuel prove to be perfect partners, matching one another note for note as they move through tunes ranging from “Sweet Georgia Brown” to “Waltzing Matilda,” with five old and five new Grisman compositions scattered in between.
Pickin’ opens at a gallop with the new “Zorro’s Last Ride,” on which Grisman plays a Mexican-inflected mandolin melody while Emmanuel flatpicks circles around him in astonishingly fast-fingered runs up and down the neck, mixing country, blues, and newgrass at breakneck speed. On “CGP & Dawg,” they’re in full-on Hot Club mode, trading leads and swinging smoothly from French cool to American cool and back again, as if the Seine were flowing all the way from Paris to the Pacific Northwest.
For “Standing Rock,” Emmanuel and Grisman start with a slow, stately Lakota motif in the background, but before long they’re breaking rhythm, layering melody lines, and taking the piece into a series of unlikely directions. The jazzy “Farm & Fun Time” defies expectations, with both players laughing at the end, pleased to be finishing at the same time, while “Port Townsend Blues” goes even further, as Emmanuel and Grisman push each other to create new leads, new voicings, and passing chords.
It’s a chance for both players to stretch out, but because Grisman has written the majority of these 12 tunes, it’s really up to Emmanuel to do the heavy lifting. He’s chosen five older Grisman compositions—“Cinderella’s Fella,” “Dawg’s Waltz,” “Newly Wedding,” “Tipsy Gypsy,” and “Tracy’s Tune”—to try his hand at being the quieter half of the duo, with stunning results. There are colors here I haven’t heard Emmanuel play before: his swinging legato, gentle tremolo, and quiet, jazzy progressions all beautifully complementing the mandolin’s higher range.
For a change of pace, there are two standards. “Sweet Georgia Brown” starts slowly, seriously, with the melody unfolding in a call and response before Emmanuel grabs the lead and both players take off on a run, building chord on top of chord until they’ve taken the tune as far as it can go. Then, on the last track, they switch places, with Grisman providing new harmonies to Emmanuel’s arrangement of “Waltzing Matilda,” bringing out the heartfelt lyricism of both players and closing the album on a high note. Duets don’t get any better than this.
This article originally appeared in the February 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.