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The Emeralds: Off The Edge

Mark Sabbatini By

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Fiddler Matthew Smith formed the Emeralds as an instrumental folk trio at age seven, about as "critic-proof as a band gets. But after aging a bit and releasing a couple of albums, what one newspaper calls the "Cute Era is over.



Off The Edge is the second album by the Alaska-based group, now featuring seven members, including four fiddlers, with a shift in focus to classics by the likes of Django Reinhardt and David Grisman. It's an album better suited for the folk dance floor than the easy chair, with cheerful and pleasantly orchestrated arrangements that adhere too closely to the lyrical concepts of the compositions for deep introspection.



That's not to say the players, now in their teens and early twenties, lack talent—several have classical training, and fiddler Amanda Kerr is a three-time state champion. But a twelve-song, 35-minute album with seven players isn't likely to be highlighted by developing concepts, especially given the inclination to offer everyone at least a brief solo on nearly every piece.



The opening "Minor Swing is a good road map, with individual passages more about recognizable embellishments than exploration. The sound may more contemporary and immediately appeasing than Reinhardt and Grappelli, but it simply lacks the depth and sophistication of the masters.



Within the album's framework, however, they perform solidly, harmonizing and supporting each other well through a mix of arrangements within songs without the clutter an ensemble of this size can create.



Eric Rodgers frequently proves a cut above on guitar and mandolin, both on ability and the advantage of standing out from the fiddlers, a good example being his mixing folk with horn-like bop phrases on "Swing '42. Pianist Ethan Barske provides a richer backdrop than expected throughout much of the album, chording densely and colorfully on songs like "EMD and "Sidestep. His featured moments are relatively few and a more prominent role on future releases would be a definite plus.



The album closes with the band's lone composition, "Picture, a leisurely two-minute waltz which is characteristically pleasant without breaking any frontiers.



When Smith's group appeared on-stage when he was all of eight, a well-known newspaper columnist wrote "you give those kids about five years... That holds true here, but by the far harsher standards of the world at large, where college all-stars often find themselves getting smacked around pretty hard during their first few years of pro ball. Off The Edge is a fine listen for fans of modern folk jazz artists like Bela Fleck, with enough merit to rise above the need for condescending treatment by ignoring its shortcomings.


Track Listing: Minor Swing; Vladamir

Personnel: Ethan Barske, piano; Matt Crimp, fiddle; Amanda Kerr, fiddle; Martha Leffek, fiddle; Eric Rodgers, guitar, mandolin; Matt Smith, fiddle; Tyler Tornfelt, bass

Title: Off The Edge | Year Released: 2005


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