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Maverick at Mandolin Plays on Innovations


Radim Zenkl doesn't just play mandolin--he revolutionizes it.

Stylistic innovations include hammered mandolin, slide mandolin and a duo technique that allows for both melodic counterpoint and chordal accompaniment. Not content to master related traditional instruments such as the mandola, he's gone on to invent hybrids of his own, including, most recently, the flamenco mandolin. Other previously untapped facets of the instrument can be found on concept albums such as "Galactic Mandolin" (1992), his first release here.

"Czech It Out" (1994), also on Acoustic Disc, was his second release, and that's what you can do when Zenkl performs Saturday at Shade Tree Stringed Instruments in Laguna Niguel. (He'll conduct a mandolin workshop the same day at Traditional Music Store in Pasadena and Sunday at Shade Tree.)

Even a solo concert is something of a departure.

"When I came to the United States in 1989, I saw there was a need to be filled," said Zenkl, 30, who defected from Czechoslovakia four months before the collapse of communism; he spoke by phone from his home in Lafayette, Calif. "There are some solo guitar players and solo piano players. I thought, 'Why not a solo mandolin player?' "


According to David "Dawg" Grisman, producer of the recording and a leading mandolinist himself, "Galactic Mandolin" may have been the first album composed entirely of original mandolin solos. It's certainly the only one in which each piece is in a different tuning, one for each musical interval from unison to octave; in what began as a compositional experiment, every other string in the four pairs of strings is tuned down a half tone for successive pieces.

"Czech It Out" consists of what Zenkl calls original "portraits" of Eastern Europe and arrangements by Zenkl of traditional Slovak and Czech tunes. Because Zenkl's duo style allows him to sound like two and even three instruments playing at once, liner notes emphasize that "all selections are instrumental solos recorded without overdubs."

His latest album, "Strings & Wings" (Shanachie, 1996), consists of improvisational duets with 20 acoustic string instrumentalists playing, among other things, koto, ukulele, oud and hurdy-gurdy. In about half the cases--including works with guitarist Tony Rice, oud player John Bilezikjian (of Laguna Hills) and Paraguayan harpist Carlos Reyes--Zenkl and his duet partner met for the first time at the recording session. A Shanachie release due out in spring focuses on Gypsy music.

Zenkl's "Mandolin Parade" (1989) was the first album for the instrument made in Czechoslovakia; on it he plays 10 mandolin-family instruments and reveals some classical training with a Beethoven sonatina.

But bluegrass music was what first attracted him to the instrument, and a career as a "new grass" mandolin player (a term Zenkl said was inspired by the defunct but influential band New Grass Revival) in Eastern Europe seemed highly unlikely.

A friend who had already escaped and was living in San Francisco offered to sponsor him in the United States. It took six months for Zenkl to get permission to leave Czechoslovakia, even for a few weeks; he saved his salary and sold instruments and sound equipment, in order to buy a plane ticket. When he arrived in San Francisco, he asked for political asylum.


In fact, Zenkl had wanted to be closer to his musical influences. Within a week, he attended a concert by acclaimed mandolinist Bill Monroe; Grisman, one of the influences whose recordings had inspired Zenkl's defection, was sitting in the front row. Zenkl introduced himself, and Grisman invited him back to his home, where the two "spent six or seven hours talking and jamming."

In 1990, Zenkl took a bus from Oakland to the National Mandolin Championship in Winfield, Kan., with only a backpack and a mandolin--and no money after buying his bus ticket.

"I thought since I would be competing, I wouldn't have to pay admission," Zenkl recalled. "They wouldn't let me in the gate until a woman from the board lent me the money, $50 for a three-day pass. But I won third prize [$155], and I was able to pay her back." Two years later, he won first prize (a handmade mandolin) and received the first standing ovation in the history of that competition.

He's shared shows with Grisman and Jerry Garcia, Tuck and Patti, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and country mandolinist Tim O'Brien. O'Brien, who recently released an album of retooled Dylan songs, and Zenkl share a birthday (March 16) and plan to play a birthday concert together every year in a different location; their third such bash is slated for Nashville.

But then, Zenkl's always taking his mandolin to new places, literally and figuratively.

"The mandolin is a tool," he said. "I am not the hard-core mandolinist. I am a musician who happens to play mandolin."

* What: Mandolinist Radim Zenkl.

* When: 8 p.m. Saturday. Workshop Sunday, 11 a.m.-1:30 p.m.

* Where: Shade Tree Stringed Instruments, 28062D Forbes Road, Laguna Niguel.

* Whereabouts: Exit Interstate 5 at Crown Valley Parkway; go west. Turn left onto Forbes Road.

* Wherewithal: $12. Workshop, $25.

* Where to call: (714) 364-5270.

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