The Mongrel Repertory of Grisman’s ‘Dawg’

Mandolinist David Grisman has staked out a small corner of the music world. By offering mostly acoustic sounds that range from swing-style jazz to bluegrass-tinged instrumentals--and even Latin and funk--his so-called “Dawg” music is something that’s not heard every day.

And while Grisman admitted that what he plays is “individual and not run of the mill,” he also said, “It just may be that people don’t hear a lot of the kinds of things I play on the mandolin very much.”

Obviously, being unusual is not that big a deal for the 44-year-old: “My goal is to make myself happy playing music. It works sometimes.”

His quartet, with drummer George Marsh, guitarist Dimitri Vandellos and bassist James Kerwin, will play the Palomino tonight.


Originally a bluegrass player whose first recording was with the Even Dozen Jug Band (which featured John Sebastian and Maria Muldaur) in 1963, Grisman at first wanted to sound like bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe. “But as soon as that happened, I lost interest,” he recalled. “I thought, ‘What good is this?’ Suddenly it turned into something else, which was my own musical personality.”

Of late, Grisman--whose new Zebra/Acoustic LP, “Svingin’ with Svend,” highlights ace Danish violinist Svend Asmussen--has been evolving toward a jazz point of view, with modern tunes like “Milestones” and “Naima” currently in the book. Still, he keeps variety at the heart of his shows.

“If I play a bluegrass festival, I still play jazz, and vice versa, because I feel people are not segmented the way the music business wants them to be,” he said. “I think most people have varied tastes. If I ask fans at a jazz festival how many like bluegrass, I get a big response. And conversely.”

Though his music allows room for solo improvisations, Grisman doesn’t think that virtuosity and invention go hand in hand. “You can be just as creative in changing one note or one inflection as you can be playing a whole mode over something,” he said. “The end result is what I’m after. You either like what happens or you don’t. It’s the effect, the music of it.”

The mandolinist got the “Dawg” moniker when he was in a bluegrass ensemble known as Old and in the Way, with such luminaries as Jerry Garcia and Vassar Clements, in 1974. “Everybody had a nickname,” he said. “When I started my own band, since it was always hard to name pieces, I called them things like ‘Dawg’s Rag,’ ‘Dawg’s Bull’ and ‘Dawg-ola.’ And when I was asked to describe my music, I figured I’d have an anti-name name. That’s ‘Dawg,’ and it’s just a joke.”

Asked if there’s an essential element in his music, Grisman thought a moment--then, with a laugh, said, “Yeah, me.”

Besides playing “a couple of weekends a month,” Grisman stays busy doing studio work, playing jingles and writing. He was on a new LP by Linda Thompson, appeared on the sound track of “The Promised Land” and recently composed a piece that was recorded by violinist Richard Greene.

But Grisman said he is not tempted to play commercial music “unless the definition changes. There are a lot of things in popular music I like, but I don’t like the idea of keeping up with the Joneses, or second-guessing what people want to hear today. I’d rather play what I want to play.”