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Eschliman champions jazz mandolin

By Tom Ineck, for the Berman Music Foundation
February 6, 2004 - 6:00 am

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The following article is reproduced here with the permission of the Berman Music Foundation of Lincoln, Nebraska and appeared in the Winter, 2004 newsletter (Volume 9, #1).

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Ted Eschliman

Ted Eschliman

Ted Eschliman frequently and casually refers to himself as a "hack." In the broadest sense, the word is short for "hackney" and usually refers to someone who does something in a banal, routine or commercial manner.

Eschliman is just being modest. A talented multi instrumentalist, singer, composer and arranger with a degree in music education from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, he is part owner and marketing director of Dietze Music House, where he's been employed for more than 23 years.

Most recently his far-ranging interest in music has made him a devotee of the jazz mandolin, as a player and collector of mandolins, as well as a dogged promoter of the instruments and the people who play them. He was largely responsible for bringing the Don Stiernberg Quartet to Lincoln for last summer's Jazz in June concert series, and in 2003 he started his own website to preach the gospel of jazz mandolin: www.jazzmando.com. He now sits on the Jazz in June board of directors and was instrumental in adding guitarist John Carlini (with guest artist Stiernberg) to the 2004 lineup.

"I picked up the mandolin about 5 years ago," Eschliman recalls. "It was an intriguing instrument and different from guitar. What surprised me was how little was known about what this instrument could do. As I got into it, I discovered that there is a really rich tradition. My 96-year-old grandmother talked about the mandolin clubs at the University of Nebraska back in the teens, almost a hundred years ago."

With the advent of the banjo, the electric guitar, and swing bands, the mandolin literally began to recede into the background of popular music because its more delicate, high-register sound could not be heard. There were few innovators outside the Smoky Mountains, where mandolins still were figured prominently in bluegrass bands, especially those of Bill Monroe and the Stanley Brothers.

He says he was so enchanted by "the perfect symmetry and jazz potential" of his first mandolin in 1998 that he became "very passionate about bringing this genre to the front. People are familiar with jazz guitar, with Joe Pass and Pat Metheny and George Benson. I'm a little bit of a hack guitar player, but I've discovered in picking up the mandolin that there's a whole world out there that has yet to be developed."

It is unfortunate, says Eschliman, the small, four-stringed instrument has gotten itself a bad rap, as it is usually associated with "toothless codgers sitting on the back porch in bib overalls." The stereotypical mandolin players are either hillbillies or schmaltzy Italian troubadours, limiting the instrument's appeal for a larger audience.

Unlike the structural freedom of jazz, tunes traditionally associated with the fiddle and mandolin are constricted to a diatonic scale that is very limiting for more adventurous players. But to Eschliman's educated ears, the mandolin seems ideal for jazz.

"The acoustics of the instrument lends itself so well to the genre that I'm amazed it hasn't been tapped into sooner by more people." By nature, jazz broadens the palette from which the mandolin artist can work.

"Jazz gets you into not only a richer harmonic vocabulary; it also pulls in multiple keys. If you listen to a good, jazzy Broadway show tune, you're going to have eight or nine different tonal centers there, so harmonically it's a lot more engaging.

To some bluegrass players, it's frightening." Eschliman is quick to point out exceptions to this rule, virtuosos who have blended their bluegrass roots with jazz dabbling, most notably Jethro Burns and David Grisman.

Eschliman and his wife have a five-year-old daughter, and he has nothing but praise for his wife's patience and understanding.

"She's gotten used to the fact that she never knows what I'm going to be doing and what I'm going to get deeply into and passionate about. Lately, it's been this whole jazz mandolin thing. It's been my ticket to the world."

Eschliman launched the website as a way to journal the things he was learning about his new instrument. He began transcribing exercises from the keyboard to the mandolin fret board to share with others online, first in music notation, then in tablature.

Through his website, Eschliman corresponds with mandolin students, musicians and fellow "hacks" from around the globe, including Belgium, Australia, New Zealand and France. Jazz mandolin, it seems, is growing in popularity and awareness, especially in Europe, he said.

Searching the Web a couple of years ago, he came up with Don Stiernberg, the Chicago-based jazz mandolinist whose quartet performed in Lincoln last June.

"Coincidently, I had gone to a mandolin festival in Lawrence, Kansas, 2 1/2 years ago, and he was doing a clinic there. I got to meet him there, and we got to be pretty good friends. Our dream is that our kids will think of the mandolin as just as much a jazz instrument as a trombone or a sax. That's a pretty tall dream."

Part of that dream may be realized soon. The popular Mel Bay Publishing company has asked Eschliman to write a book on jazz mandolin. He already has written a couple of instructional articles for mandolinsessions.com, another way of expanding interest in the instrument.

"That's just such virgin territory right now that a hack like me can come up with stuff like that. It's funny that I could be an expert when there are people who are more qualified. The thing I've known in being involved in the arts is that there are plenty of professional players that are just monster virtuosos and technicians, but they couldn't tell you anything about what they're doing. They couldn't explain it."

Eschliman's own collection of mandolins includes an Ovation for plugged-in acoustic playing; a blue, custom-made Rigel; a traditional Gibson for bluegrass playing; an Epiphone that used to belong to bluegrass legend Jethro Burns; and a miniature gypsy-style Djangolin.

The market for mandolins and acoustic string music in general has grown, perhaps due to the phenomenal success of the recent film "Oh Brother, Where art Thou?" Eschliman thinks it also may be a reaction to the deluge of electric guitars and guitar players in pop music.

To help counter the emphasis on guitars and other more traditional jazz instruments, Eschliman currently is touting jazz mandolinists Michael Lampert and Will Patton; and similarly flavored French gypsy jazz.

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