The little eight-stringed instrument harkens back to early Americana, folk and roots music. But placed in the right hands, the mandolin can swing, rock and bebop.
David Surette, the folk music coordinator at the Concord Community Music School, started the March Mandolin Festival 11 years ago to bring together the mandolin-playing community. The first year he started small, hoping maybe 15 people would show up.
Since then, the festival has grown each year. This year’s lineup includes a Grammy nominee, an internationally acclaimed Celtic music specialist, a concert and workshops in Concord and two more concerts on the Seacoast.
“It’s grown into a full weekend,” Surette said. “But the Concord part is the core of the festival because that’s where all the teaching happens. [The Concord Community Music School] is a wonderful facility. That’s the heart of festival.”
The festival begins with a concert Friday, March 1, at the Stone Church in Newmarket and continues into Saturday with classes and workshops at the Concord Community Music School. A concert at the music school will wrap up the day on Saturday. On Sunday, March 3, the festival will conclude at the Barley Pub in Dover with a String Jazz Extravaganza, which Surette said will incorporate more than just mandolin and be heavily improvisational.
In addition to Surette, this year’s festival will feature Grammy nominee Matt Flinner of the Modern Mandolin Quartet, Celtic music stalwart Robin Bullock and Vermont-based Will Patton, who brings a jazzy sound to the instrument. Suzie Burke, Surette’s wife and musical partner, will also perform throughout the weekend.
Surette said the festival will demonstrate how diverse the mandolin can be.
“The one thing we hear more than anything else is people saying, ‘Wow, I didn’t know there was such a wide range of music available in just mandolin music,” Surette said.
Patton heavily embodies the jazzier side of the instrument, approaching the mandolin with a strong background in jazz bass. He said he took his bass skills on tour in blues bands and soul bands and just for fun would try to translate the music over to his mandolin, not thinking it would become a large portion of his career as a professional musician.
“I played mandolin in high school, and the stuff I was playing on bass, like bebop and swing, I would play on mandolin,” Patton said. “I was never a bluegrass player, I just messed around with some Charlie Parker tunes on mandolin.”
Flinner, on the other hand, has deep bluegrass roots, picking up banjo before mandolin. He said his current group, the Modern Mandolin Quartet, takes on a string quartet sound, using mandolins instead of violins. He’s also played with Leftover Salmon, a bluegrassy rock band that has been a popular act in the jam scene.
With most musicians, Flinner said their sounds are a product of the styles they personally listen to. Because he enjoys so many different genres of music, it adds a versatility to his mandolin playing.
“The Modern Mandolin Quartet and Leftover Salmon are about as different as you can get,” Flinner said. “I guess having broad interests leads me to learn a broad variety of music.”
As a specialist in Celtic music, Bullock doesn’t tend to combine genres. But, he said as a guitarist and mandolin player, his challenge has been using those two non-traditional Celtic instruments to play traditional arrangements.
Because most of the music Bullock plays is not intended for mandolin or guitar, he said it requires a great deal of attentive listening and fine tuning to transition the music to a new instrument in a respectful manner.
“It requires a certain amount of adaptation,” Bullock said. “There are techniques on the fiddle and pipes that don’t work on the mandolin.”
Patton said he particularly enjoys the festival because it’s one of only a few that caters specifically to the mandolin.
“Mandolin is growing, and David’s festival is growing,” he said. “A lot of that might have to do with the vibe at festival. It’s one of the most relaxed festivals.”