Interview: Mandolinist Bryce Rabideau on the premiere of ‘Meanwhile’

If you were a regular show goer before the pandemic, you may have seen Bryce Rabideau play mandolin with Pittsburgh band Buffalo Rose. Or maybe you saw him play with the likes of Joy Ike, The Skyliners, or Bindley Hardware Company. Well, now, you have a chance to see Rabideau lead a new string trio when he opens the ninth season of the New Hazlett Theater’s CSA series with a new stage performance.

Meanwhile is an exploration of American improvised music. Accompanied by Jason Rafalak (upright bass) and John Bagnato (acoustic guitar), Rabideau employs a suite of original songs to push the limits of the acoustic string trio and create a sound that promises to be “rich, spontaneous, and undeniably fun.” Being privy to a bit of Rabideau’s solo mandolin playing while conducting the below interview, that last statement is not out of the question. The songs and the playing are quite impressive.

Check out the interview below!

Meanwhile premieres at the New Hazlett Theater on October 28, 8PM and October 29, 11AM and 8PM. Click here for tickets and additional information and read up on the New Hazlett Theater’s COVID policies before you attend.

David Bernabo: Hi Bryce, can you tell me about your show?

Bryce Rabideau: Sure. My show is called Meanwhile. Meanwhile is an exploration of American improvised music of all sorts, using the palette of the mandolin, the upright bass, and the acoustic guitar. The show itself consists of 10 original compositions that were written specifically to defy expectations of the audience and even of the other musicians on stage. So my goal is to sort of showcase some of my musical inspirations in a way that’s exciting and thrilling and true to the genres that inspired them.

DB: I’m curious — what draws you to the string trio?

BR: I have been playing mandolin for a number of years now, and I think it’s got a lot of qualities that are just so special. It can be a percussion instrument or a stringed instrument at any given time. And timbre of the mandolin meshes beautifully with the acoustic guitar and the upright bass. They don’t get in each other’s way, harmonically, and that presents so many interesting possibilities for different sounds and different palettes to explore. So I really wanted to take just those three instruments and push them to their logical extremes; try to emulate jazz fusion, try to emulate pop music, try to take aspects of other genres that really excite me and put them in this new setting and see what happens.

DB: With that format, do you see genre as a limitation? What are the boundaries that you’re trying to push against?

BR: Genre is a really fun boundary to push against, specifically. Especially because when people see those three instruments on stage, they immediately think of bluegrass music. There’s plenty of classical trios and Italian folk trios that look similar, but in this country in particular, at this time, those three instruments scream bluegrass to most people. And I’ve been having fun defying that expectation. So that is the primary boundary I want to push against with this show.

DB: In the description I saw, there was a mention of American improvised music. Can you talk a little bit about what that means to you?

BR: Yeah, American improvised music obviously can mean so many different things. But two genres that come to mind for me are jazz and bluegrass, which are two genres that were unequivocally born here, very inspired by African rhythms and blues music, and in bluegrass’s case a lot of European folk music. But those two genres both rely heavily on improvisation. The individual identities of the musicians come through very strongly.

The spirit of the two genres is essentially American. It happened in New Orleans and in West Virginia, and there are places you can point to and say, some aspect of this music was born here. That gets me very excited as something to explore from a historical context, but also in a modern way, because this music is still evolving. Both of those genres are often seen as somewhat traditional, but there are so many different things that can be represented by those two title cards.

DB: How out will you be getting? Is everything played over changes or are you venturing into other areas, too?

BR: This music, for all of its spontaneity, is somewhat tightly arranged. There’s a lot of notes on the page. Part of what I love about certain improvised arrangements is not always knowing what is improvised and what is pre-arranged. So I wanted to follow that train of thought with this music as well. It’s tightly arranged, but there are points where anything can happen. In any given piece, there are large sections where the reigns are taken off of one musician or two at one time, and a lot of communication can happen. Things sort of align again after that. So I would say, I’m not getting too out in one sense, but also I want every performance to be very different and very spontaneous.

DB: Can you tell me a little bit more about the songwriting process?

BR: I started writing the first piece at the beginning of 2020, January, February of 2020, and suddenly found myself with a lot of time to continue working. So I wrote nine more from that point until now, and was fortunate enough to have a very close friend, Jason Rafalak, who was in my pod, and we worked on some of this music together. John Bagnato came into the fold about six to nine months after that. Once we had that trio, the snowball kept rolling. I was more and more inspired to write a more and more diverse set of material for them to try to tackle and for us to push our own personal boundaries over time.

DB: So you could see what the musicians could do and then try to write something beyond that?

BR: Exactly. Yeah, the hardest thing was writing for a guitarist that didn’t exist yet. For the first couple pieces, I wasn’t sure who would be playing guitar and once I had that — John in the club — it became a lot easier and more fun to write to his strengths and push his limits along with my own and Jason’s.

DB: The different genres that you’re looking at — have you written in those genres before or were some of those a stretch?

BR: I’ve been writing music since I was very young. The newest aspect of this is how much instrumental music is involved in this show. I have always written vocal music. I consider myself an okay singer, and I have always written for my own voice. I rarely write for other people. It’s always been a somewhat personal thing. In this case, I found myself wanting to write a lot of instrumental music all of a sudden, and that is a pretty new development in my creative life. Even so, there are two pieces in this show that are vocal tunes that I wanted to include, because they felt like a fundamental part of my identity, and I actually liked that they provide a little bit of contrast with the instrumental music so people can see the strengths of both forms.

DB: How did you get into music? What was the initial spark?

BR: I took piano lessons when I was very young. I took trombone lessons as well. Nothing stuck too hard instrumentally, but I was singing throughout my childhood. I picked up the guitar when I was 13 or 14. That’s when I found a stronger channel for my musical energy. From that point until college, I got increasingly interested in improvisation and broadening my understanding of what music really is and how much of it is out there. For so many years, you’re just limited by your surroundings and what is immediately right there in front of you. So that’s what ultimately brought me to Duquesne. I studied jazz guitar at Duquesne University. It’s felt like a continuous musical journey since then of trying to understand different genres and what makes them work and what caused them to become what they are. So the historical aspect of music is fascinating to me, as well as just the virtuosity of it and trying to get better as a player.

DB: Were there any albums that really stood out along that journey?

BR: One of them that ultimately inspired me to pick up the mandolin was the Goat Rodeo Sessions — Chris Thile was the mandolin player involved in that project along with rather phenomenal musicians. I heard that record and having grown up in the suburbs of Massachusetts hadn’t really experienced a lot of mandolin and didn’t know what it could do. That album took me into the worlds of bluegrass and chamber music and all the settings that mandolin can be found. It really changed my life. I bought a mandolin that year, age 18 or 19.

A few others that come to mind — I mentioned before that I like music that I can always tell what’s improvised and what’s not. Wayne Shorter’s music is fascinating in that way. Native Dancer is a record of his that I think is unbelievable. Chick Corea’s Return to Forever project has a similar lore to me, and these are records that directly inspired the music that I wrote for this show.

DB: I’ll resist jumping down a rabbit hole on Chick Corea and ECM and all that stuff.

BR: I’ll get as nerdy as you want.

DB: Was your family musical?

BR: They were very musical in their own way. They weren’t professional musicians and they didn’t even necessarily play a lot of music themselves. But my mom had a love for Joni Mitchell and a whole bunch of other 70s, 80s folk singer songwriters. They took me to see shows in my little town quite a bit. My dad sang to me when I went to bed. Music was certainly around the house. I took to creating it more than they ever did, but they were important in inspiring me to pursue it.

DB: Coming to Pittsburgh for undergrad, did the city or local players have an influence?

BR: Oh, absolutely, yeah. I didn’t know what I was walking into when I moved into Pittsburgh, but this city has an amazing jazz legacy that is continuing to this day. I very quickly realized that if I was going to be a good jazz musician of any stripe, I would have to go out and seek it out every day of the week, which is what I ultimately did. People like Roger Humphries and Richie Cole were here to carry this incredible jazz torch. Seeing them play and learning about their lives really inspired me to check it out more and learn as much as I could.

DB: Yeah, there seems to be a bit of a renaissance again with the local jazz scene. Before with Shadow Lounge and Ava, there was a bump of jam sessions and shows. Now with Kingfly —

BR: and Con Alma. Yeah, I’m really excited about the next few years of Pittsburgh jazz, because from what I’ve learned talking to my professors and other musicians, there’s always an ebb and flow here. It’s not like somewhere like New York, where there’s this critical mass of music happening. Any city, just under New York, all the way down is going to have a little bit more of coming and going happening. And here, I think we’re in this coming phase where there’s a lot going on and it gets me really psyched.

DB: It’s nice, too, because, say, two people move here, and then all of a sudden, there’s a music series in a warehouse or one venue opens and they host regular shows and now there’s a scene.

BR: Yeah, it happens so quick. I forgot how quick that can happen. I got to give a shout out to John Shannon who opened Con Alma a few years ago, and I think is personally responsible for a lot of great music that’s happening now and great musicians wanting to come through Pittsburgh.

DB: So how did you hear about the CSA program?

BR: My initial concept for Meanwhile was for it to be an album of recorded music. I did a lot of research on what grant programs could give me the funding to do that. I had heard about the CSA from past seasons and have a lot of friends that have been involved. I knew it was a great program. At some point, I thought, well, this could be a live show, might actually thrive as a live show given the parameters I put on this music and the way that I wrote it. I’m so grateful that the CSA saw that same potential in it, because I do plan on releasing this as a recorded album at some point, but I love the idea of premiering it on a stage with the three musicians right there in front of you making musical decisions in front of you. That’s the way that this music is best presented.

DB: So will this performance mainly be a concert or are there extra musical things happening?

BR: There’s a spoken word component. Even the best music in the world is made a little better by some verbal context, because it’s good to know the experiences that the artist had when writing it or some of the deeper meaning behind that C# in the fifth bar. I don’t want to over-explain the music, but I do want to provide the audience some context, especially because there’s not a lot of sung words in this show and people’s experience with instrumental music is all over the map. No matter who you are I want you to understand what gets me excited about this music and share that excitement with you.

DB: Do you think there’s life for this trio beyond these 10 songs?

BR: Yeah, I hope so. That ball is in their court as well, but I think we’re all collectively very excited about the show. I would love to keep playing with Jason and John as a trio for the next few years. I think we have something special.

Meanwhile premieres at the New Hazlett Theater on October 28, 8PM and October 29, 11AM and 8PM. Click here for tickets and additional information and read up on the New Hazlett Theater’s COVID policies before you attend.

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