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Mandolin Master Dedicated to Jazz/ Stiernberg’s Mandolin Sings and Swings

by Howard Reich, Chicago Tribune, June 1st, 2016

It isn’t easy being a jazz mandolinist.

For starters, the soft-spoken instrument doesn’t stand much of a chance being heard alongside, say, a trumpet or a saxophone. And then there’s the problem of how listeners regard you.

“People don’t expect to hear jazz coming out of that instrument”, says Chicagoan Don Stiernberg, one of the world’s leading jazz mandolin virtuosos.

“You have everything from people saying ‘That’s not a mandolin’ to’You can’t play jazz on a mandolin'” adds Stiernberg, still confounded by the opposition.”A lot of people have a predisposition about the instrument. Sometimes you have to try to win people over.”

Stiernberg has dedicated his career to that proposition, and he’ll be proving the naysayers wrong once again Sunday evening at SPACE, where he’ll celebrate the release of his immensely attractive, fittingly named album “Good Numbers.” Fronting his trio with two seasoned Chicago jazzmen–guitarist Andy Brown and bassist Jim Cox–Stiernberg will unreel the jazz standards that make up the lion’s share of this recording.

If this music, with its joyous swing rhythms and nimble instrumental virtuosity, doesn’t persuade you that yes, indeed, jazz can flourish on the mandolin (or any other instrument, for that matter), then probably nothing will.

As far as Stiernberg is concerned, the mandolin happens to be ideally suited to jazz, “if you think of it as a combination of the violin and the guitar, which it is”, he says. “It’s tuned to the same pitches as the violin, and it’s operated with a pick like a guitar. So it’s kind of a mashup of those two instruments.”

Yet the mandolin has a voice distinctly its own: brightly ebullient in tone, sharp in articulation and capable of producing melodies and chords. You just have to be careful not to play while someone else is blowing full force into a tenor saxophone nearby, or you’ll look as if you’ve become a mime artist.

That Stiernberg has built a career as a jazz mandolinist surprises no one more than himself, though it hasn’t been easy.
“For a lot of years, I’d play party jobs and tuxedo jobs and sideman work on other instruments besides mandolin”, he says. “But over the years the mandolin part has become more and more the focus, and now that is what I do: I play mandolin. Now, to do everything with the mandolin, it’s a combination of playing shows, making records, teaching… When you roll it all together, it’s almost one living!”

And it’s one he might never have pursued but for something unexpected that happened during his youth in Wauconda. Though he was accustomed to hearing his father’s jazz records playing in the backround, his mom had a role too. “The thing that really crystallized the whole thing for me was when my mom heard an ad on WFMT radio that said: Study mandolin with the great Jethro Burns”, remembers Stiernberg.

“I had heard some tracks of his records on the air—Homer and Jethro made instrumental albums of just straight-ahead swinging jazz stuff”, adds Stiernberg, referring to the great comedy/music duo. “So here’s my mother saying you should go to study with this guy in Skokie, where he gives lessons.

“Sure enough I went to see Jethro for a lesson, and that was it. I was a goner.”

No surprise, considering that beneath the facade of Homer and Jethro’s comedic stage shtick were two adroit instrumental improvisers, with Burns building a solo career after Homer Haynes’ death in 1971. Burns also taught lessons in Skokie, not far from his Evanston home, and Stiernberg began studying with the master at age 15. He continued through high school and, after graduating from Ripon College in Wisconsin, Stiernberg found himself playing in Burns’ band.

What did Burns think of Stiernberg’s work?

“I won’t say he was a student of mine—by the time he started coming for lessons, he didn’t need them”, Burns wrote in the liner notes to Stiernberg’s first recording, “Rosetta:A Jazz Mandolin Album”(1979). “About all I did was sit and jam with him, offering a suggestion now and then, help him organize and smooth out what he was already playing. Over the years it has been my pleasure to watch Don develop from a bluegrass player into the the brilliant all-around player he is now, equally at home with the eight-string mandolin or the Tiny Moore five-string model which you hear on this great album. He is fast, very clean, very original, and all I can say is it’s guys like Don Stiernberg who will send a lot of us old dogs into an earlier retirement than we had planned on!”

Burns, of course, needn’t have fretted about that, but his appreciation of Stiernberg’s art echoes widely. Guitarist Brown, who has been playing with Stiernberg for nearly a decade, rightly observes in an email that “he has expanded and furthered the jazz mandolin style cultivated by his mentor, Jethro Burns. He has been THE standard bearer of swinging jazz mandolin for many years.”

Among his jazz heroes, Stiernberg cites not only mandolinists such as Burns, David Grisman, and Sam Bush but also jazz guitar eminences Joe Pass, Wes Montgomery and George Benson; tenor saxophonists Zoot Sims and Al Cohn, who decades ago used to blast at each other from opposite sides of the room at the Jazz Showcase; and singer-pianist Judy Roberts, who “way back in those early years, she’d actually let me sit in with her band”, says Stiernberg, still marveling at that.

Even with all of his decades in music, Stiernberg says he was a bit reluctant to follow guitarist Brown and bassist Cox’s advice that the new album feature the trio alone, leaving him somewhat exposed.

“Initially, I was kind of afraid of going with just the smaller instrumentation”, he says “but Andy and Jim kind of bolstered my confidence.”

Judging by the high spirits he brings to the standards in “Good Numbers”, as well as his catchy original, “The Mayor of Swingville”, Stiernberg had nothing to worry about.

“Sounds of city resonate on new albums”

From Chicago Tribune, 9/11/2013
by Howard Reich

Don Stiernberg: “Mandoboppin’!”(MandoTraveler)

Many Chicagoans don’t realize that one of the world’s great mandolinists happens to live in our midst. Stiernberg’s latest elease reiterates the point, the mercurial ease and technical fluidity of his playing making his feats seem a lot easier than they are. The joyousness and rhythmic chug of this music will remind listeners of the musical language of Django Reinhardt, and anyone who values the gypsy-jazz idiom will find gratifying listening here. But the mandolinist’s rhythmically bouyant, high-pitched passages have a charm of their own in an album built mostly on Stiernberg’s originals.

He’s powered by Andy Brown’s rhythm guitar and comparably imperturbable work from drummer Phil gratteau, pianist Larry Harris and bassist Jim Cox. Stiernberg and friends convey joy in virtually every track.

From Chicago Jazz Magazine Jan/Feb 2014

CD Review by Randy Freedman

Descended from the lute, the mandolin can trace its origins back to the very earliest stringed instruments. During the early part of the twentieth century, a distinctly American style of mandolin emerged, having a carved top and back instead of the European-style flat top and bowled back. The arrival of radio and popularity of mandolinist Bill Monroe and his bluegrass music guaranteed the mandolin a lasting place in American musical culture. But it was not until the early to mid-1960’s that jazz mandolin gained wider acceptance, due in part to a pair of albums, “Playing it Straight” and “It Ain’t Necessarily Square” by Homer and Jethro(guitarist Homer Haynes and mandolinist Jethro Burns, mentor to Don Stiernberg).

Working as a sideman on numerous recording sessions as well as live performances in a variety of musical styles, Stiernberg has been an accomplished and seminal presence on the Chicago music scene for several decades. Highlights of “Mandoboppin'” include “Life Itself”, which begins with a scintillating introduction by the rhythm section, while Stiernberg’s mandolin enters for a perfectly crafted, bright and effective segment. The duo of Harris and Stiernberg shares the melody, complimenting each other with clockwork-like precision. Sagacious bass from Cox(arguably the preeminent Chicago bassist of his era), the deferential and complimentary guitar work of Brown, and the suave but not overpowering drumming of Gratteau beautifully support and showcase the talents of Stiernberg.

Mandolin and piano are soft and dreamy partners on “Questions and Answers” with Harris and Stiernberg taking turns in the lead and then combining their voices to brilliant effect. Gratteau’s sylish percussion gives “Magnanimous” a Latin vibe from the start. Once again, Harris advances the melody with his piano work, and demonstrates why he could lay claim to part ownership of this recording, almost as much as Stiernberg. Brown’s nimble agility on the guitar combined with Stiernberg’s abitlity to convey mood subtleties with his own adroit mandolin string work is remarkable.

On Stiernberg’s two vocal tracks, he seems to put aside his usual joking onstage demeanor (some of which often carries through to the recording studio) and instead approaches his singing in a more serious, thoughtful manner. On the slower “The Very Thought of You” Stiernberg chooses to impart an ironic quality by phrasing the lyrics in a more deliberate way than their meaning might suggest. With the more upbeat style of “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea”, Stiernberg brings us a surprisingly hopeful and sincere vocal presentation that both flatters the lyric and reminds us that we cannot allow our admiration of Stiernberg’s obvious mandolin wizardry to prevent our offering him his full due as a capable and serious vocalist.

Take this opportunity to enjoy the simple honesty of his vocals while you appreciate his delicate and complex mandolin virtuosity.
Stiernberg and fellow producer Steve Rashid have assembled a truly eminent group of Chicago musicians for this album, and empowered them to display the full range of their respective talents. Each gets his moments to shine on this unique and beguiling delight of a jazz recording, with Stiernberg and his mandolin as the centerpiece.

Music Ramble: Don Stiernberg – Swing 220 (Blue Night Records)

I’ve just spent a couple of blissful hours listening to one of the best jazz mandolin albums I’ve ever heard (a couple hours because I pressed play again as soon as the last track was over) (Read full article here.)