Casey Driessen at Berklee

I don’t know what it is about the telepathy of master musicians, but it transcends just making brilliant sounds together.  Casey and Tony both seem to favor bright red, lace-up sneakers – Tony in Converse, Casey in white-striped kicks.  Does it have something to do with pushing the boundaries of modern bluegrass music to its limits, and blazing new paths for both genre and instrument, as both players have done in their careers?

Maybe they just both like wearing sweet shoes.

Casey Driessen 3D Album Cover

Casey Driessen paid a visit to the Berklee String Department’s famous 5E classroom at 1140 Boylston Street on Friday morning November 18th.  As is typical with most string clinics, the visit was 50% playing, 40% talking, and 10% making jokes at Matt Glaser’s expense.  I entered the standing-room-only location as Casey was improvising on a fiddle tune, using excellent theme and variation interspersed with blues notes and some jazzy licks.  Of course, his famous chop was a repeated theme as well.

Casey is very skilled at his own version of chopping, the percussive, scratching bow strike prominent throughout bluegrass and American folk string playing.  Casey’s music has had a huge influence in refining the sound, including a special triplet chop of his own that many have tried to imitate but few can repeat.  It was a recurring theme throughout the clinic, as was the root of the chop itself.  Hanneke Cassel, a celtic fiddle master who stopped by to see her Berklee classmate and friend’s demonstration, mentioned the study of a “chop tree,” which traces the ancestry of the sound throughout recorded fiddle music history.

Hanneke Cassel, Celtic Fiddler Extraordinaire

For the past few years, Casey has been playing with his own crew the Colorfools and guest artist-ing it up with a number of fantastic music stars, most recently and notably, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones.  In Casey’s travels to Madagacar, he met a percussionist with a very special drum – it gave Casey an idea for a three-part chop.  NOT the triplet, mind you, but a way to introduce odd meters into the pattern, creating bars of 5, 7, 9, 11, etc.

The basic overview:

  1. chop down,
  2. slide across the strings,
  3. chop up.

In developing it, Casey also trained himself to chop BOTH ways across the strings – towards and away from the bridge.  It was an enlightening moment when he called out Hanneke for chopping ‘backwards’ – towards the bridge on the down beat, a reverse motion from the commonly taught method. I guess it was Karma coming back at Casey for always shaking his head and poking fun at Hanneke’s backwards chop style.

Casey is starting a solo tour this year, he says, after years of working on his own stuff for hours in a practice room and wanting to expand it into a project.  The Singularity Tour is a simple concept: Man + Fiddle + Loop Pedals = Infinite possibilities.  Check out videos in the link above.  It’s a truly interesting concept, and a great challenge.  I see it as a great move for violinists everywhere.  The pedal board has already given lots of players the chance to be a one-man band.  Similarly, Zoe Keating has been playing several gigs as a one-woman orchestra with her laptop.

Zoe Keating

Visit Casey’s website and you’ll see that his Singularity tour is the opportunity to hear a showcase of all of his musical training and skill, developed over years of study, practice, and experience.  It’s a culmination of the style he’s been creating and using to be a force in the world of innovative bluegrass and jazz.

Casey said about his practice habits that he prefers to concentrate on one area of playing if he has a short amount of time in the day.  If an hour is all he has, he’d rather spend it all on technical patterns and scales, or working on a song, tune or solo.  Breaking up time to cover all the bases is spreading it too thin, he feels, and I understand the practice.  Focus hard and develop one thing for an hour if that’s all you have.  Make it count – quality of playing, not quantity.

I really liked his ruminations about chop practice – developing this new 3-part sound takes a lot of work and diligence.  Matt Glaser had asked him jokingly, “So you just sit in a room with a metronome and practice your chop three hours a day?”  But that’s basically right.  Casey does dedicate hours of his shedding time just to rhythm.  He mentioned working with all pattern combinations for his new 3-part chop – a series towards the bridge, a series away from the bridge, a series of back and forth, towards, away, and several more combinations.  He wants to be prepared for any possibility.

“I’m trying to be in control of it mentally, instead of my hand being in control,” Casey said of his diligence.

Casey and Tony

To close out the clinic after a few questions, Tony joined in for a few choruses of Bill Cheetham and a rhythm-changes sounding ditty, Salty.    Tony answered a question about the difficulty of playing banjo tunes on the fiddle with a suggestion for juicy double stops.  Truly, imitating the arpeggiative style of banjo is not easy on fiddle.  Juicy Double Stops sound like a good way to get the fast and flying notes across.

It was areal treat to listen to Casey Driessen sing and speak about playing, both with his voice and his fiddle.  Berklee is lucky to call him a graduate and friend, and our string students certainly appreciate his time, sharing his stories about life and career, and how playing fits it all together.

Read all about his career and adventures at caseydriessen.com, and keep in touch as his Singularity Tour takes wing!

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