Andrew Collins loves to sing. So after releasing two award-winning instrumental albums—And It Was Good and A Play on Words—he decided the time was right to add some vocals to the mix. The result, Tongue & Groove, is a double set of 11 vocal songs (Tongue) and 11 instrumentals (Groove), and it’s the best of both worlds, marking a new stage in the life of the Andrew Collins Trio.
For years, the trio—Collins (mandolin, mandocello, guitar, octave violin, violin), James McEleney (upright bass), and Mike Mezzatesta (guitar, mandolin, octave violin, violin)—have been at the center of Canada’s acoustic music scene, winning Instrumental Group of the Year at the Canadian Folk Music Awards in 2011, 2014, and 2016. But Tongue gives the trio a different way to shine, bringing their newgrass to more conventional song structures in country (“Black Veil”), folk (“Katy Dear”), standards (“Just a Gigolo”), and honky-tonk (“I’ll Be There If You Ever Want Me”).
The selections here give the players a chance to stretch out within the boundaries of a four-minute song, like Roger Miller’s “Leaving’s Not the Only Way to Go,” where Collins and Mezzatesta dance along the edge of the melody, hinting at the lightest of Mississippi blues. On Graham Nash’s “King Midas in Reverse,” there’s little distinction between verse and improvisation, with solos by Collins and Mezzatesta that let the tune slowly unravel itself. For Nick Drake’s “Cello Song,” Collins balances the simple directness of his voice with the gravity of his rhythm/lead playing on mandocello and finds a combination of sounds that are as sweet as they are unlikely.
Groove is strongest when all three members are back in their element and free to take these Collins instrumentals as far as they’ll go. It’s here that McEleney’s bass really comes alive, and instead of trying to serve the song, the trio is playing for the purest pleasure of being together, thinking up ways to combine trad bluegrass, Celtic, Dawg grass, folk, jazz, neo-classical, and pop into something new.
On mandolin and mandocello, Collins remains the focus, smartly crossing boundaries and playing with wit, imagination, and a beautifully bright, light touch. But there’s more than enough room in these pieces for McEleney to keep moving the pocket and for Mezzatesta to explore the spaces between
Collins’s leads, quietly chording in the background (“Sunlight at Midnight”), shifting rhythms (“Badabada Ba Ba”), taking gently jazzy, understated solos (“Lullabye for Len”), building a counterpoint arpeggio (“Famous Last Words”), or flatpicking high-speed, neo-trad bluegrass runs (“Big Toaster”). Collins is the virtuoso, the famous one, of course, and it’s his trio—but it’s the combination of players fitting so perfectly alongside one another, anticipating each other’s moves, that brings out the best in all of them.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2019 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.