First -- curiosity. The simple incongruity forms a question mark. A big ol' bass and a high-pitched mandolin, side by side? Like throwing a growling mastiff in with a mewling kitten.
But then listen to the music, and be convinced.
MandoBasso is both the name of their duo, and the name of their first album. Bill Bradbury plays the mandolin. Gunnar Biggs plays the bass. Together they play MandoBasso music. Crazy-quilt music. At its core is American country music, the kind heard floating on Smokey Mountain mists from the front porch of holler cabins. It's like a sip from the dipper of water drawn fresh from the well. But listen some more and jazz influences become apparent as do classical underpinnings. Keep listening and Celtic music drifts in as do complex progressions borrowed from World music. See? Crazy-quilt music.
Crazy, but damn good.
Biggs and Bradbury, both San Diego County musicians and music teachers, have known each other for almost 20 years, but didn't start playing together until about four years ago. How did it start? Who suggested what first? They look at each other, laugh, shrug. Time has clouded the who and the what. Neither is sure who made the first pitch. But they agreed it started as an experiment. Both wanted to see what the possibilities between bass and mandolin were. Could it work?
They got together for a couple of laid-back faculty music sessions and discovered surprising compatibility.
"Why not just try this?" Bradbury said he remembered thinking.
Since the MandoBasso CD came out, they play a gig or two a month. No, they aren't filling stadiums yet, but the crowds they do draw are appreciative.
"I thought most of our listeners would be older people, but I'm surprised how many younger people come to hear our music," Biggs said. "We get the tattooed and pierced folks along with the used-to-be hippies. Maybe it's seen as a retro thing, but it's really an across-the-board generational thing."
Many of the MandoBasso CD songs were written by Bradbury although Biggs has several contributions and there are a couple of traditional standards. But Bradbury contends that composition is a strong word for what he does.
"Sometimes I just have to write eight bars, and things just take off from there," Bradbury said.
Biggs, the jazzman, can improvise like nobody's business. Prodded by Biggs, Bradbury's improvisational skills are ascending as well. Usually relegated to the background, thumping rhythms and strumming melodies, both musicians enjoy exploring the solo capabilities of their instruments.
Biggs plays a 150-year-old Dutch bass that he bought from a San Diego broker about five years ago. He named his bass Anna Magdalena, after Bach's second wife. "The first thing I played while trying her out was a Bach piece and Anna came to mind. It was a smaller bass with a big sound. She can play jazz, classical, bluegrass -- she covers everything I need," he said.
Bradbury plays a Summit mandolin crafted by Paul Schnieder. "I've poured so much energy into her, spent so much time connected to her, affection has grown," he said. Of course, his mandolin is a "she," but he hasn't named her yet.
Biggs, a Carlsbad denizen can often be found, when his shoulder isn't bad, paddling his longboard in local surf. He has been a go-to bassman for some four decades. When Mose Allison comes to town, Biggs gets the call. He's often called on to lay down baselines for jazz guitarist Peter Sprague and many, many others --- Thad Jones, Tommy Flanagan, Sheila Jordan, Kenny Barron, Red Norvo, Papa John Creach, Barney Kessel ... But not only jazz, he also plays classical with the San Diego Opera, Orchestra Nova and Orquestra de Baja California. Biggs, a pro, does it all.
Bradbury, primarily a composer, leans toward the professorial. He earned his doctorate in music from Cornell University. For much of his career he's been a music professor at California State University, San Marcos. He has a fondness for electronic and experimental music and many of his compositions are in that genre. A few years ago, he earned a regional Emmy for a musical score he did for the the documentary Anza-Borrego: Seasons in the Desert.
It would seem MandoBasso's bib-overalls approach to music would be a major stretch for the electronica-prone Bradbury. But if you know his roots, it isn't so unexpected.
Bradbury was born in Barneveld, New York, a small town in the Adirondacks. When he was 15 or 16 he found his grandfather's mandolin, a 1920s bowl-back, Italian-style mandolin, in his grandmother's attic. There was also a banjo. She gave the instruments to her grandson. Always musical, he started playing them, sitting in on occasion with a funky little jug-style band that often played at a nearby commune.
Bradbury's main instrument is the piano, He played mandolin for kicks. But he abandoned the mandolin in college to get serious about piano composition. Plus, the mandolin didn't hold much sway with the coeds. He closed its case where it languished for 25 years.
But a half-dozen or so years ago, Bradbury had a serious heart attack. He wasn't even 50, but stress and genetics were choking his arteries. He was head of his family, head of the music department, and responsibilities weighed heavily. He returned to the mandolin as therapy.
"Most of my work is with done with a pencil or a computer," Bradbury said. "I felt I needed something alive in my hands, something I could hold. The mandolin is such a cradle instrument," Bradbury said.
When he picked it up again, it felt right, a touchstone to his past, rekindling childhood feelings for the music he once loved. The mandolin, plus diet and exercise, nursed him back to health.
Like Bradbury, Biggs hailed from rural, small-town origins -- Zanesville, Ohio, where music from the hill country played through tabletop radios, but his family moved to San Diego when he was young. Biggs's father was a French hornist and a music professor, so music talk was part of his Cheerios for breakfast. His father would bring home orchestra instruments, and Gunnar, ever inquisitive, would learn them. As a youth, when the school band needed someone to fill in on a random instrument, they would call on Biggs. It set patterns for his life.
Then came Paul McCartney. Biggs, like most teens of that era, wanted to be like him. Biggs's dad, ever supportive, got him a bass guitar, but also got him a standup bass. The sound and the feel of the standup made Biggs forget his McCartney ambitions.
Biggs's musicianship earned him a scholarship to the University of North Texas's highly regarded jazz program. He went for a year, but bigger things called. He bailed at 19 to join the San Diego Symphony. At 20, he left the symphony to go on the road with drummer Buddy Rich, notorious for tirades. Biggs grew up fast in the jazz world, and from then on he was mostly a jazz musician, although he would play classical when called.
After many side trips, he got a BA in ethnic studies and global arts at California State University, San Marcos where is specialized in world music. He recently retired as double bass instructor at San Diego State University. He also taught at Mira Costa and Palomar Community colleges, where he retired as director of jazz ensembles. And he still teaches private students in his home.
MandoBasso is about six songs into a new album, many of the songs this time are being written by Biggs, figuring out melodies on his guitar. "I have a thing where I write a song a day and throw them into a folder. Just little tunes that I revisit after a time," he says. He tinkers with them, works on them to see if they'll fly. Most go nowhere, but every now and then the magic happens.
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Top Image: MandoBasso.
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