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Review: William Coulter, Deby Benton Grosjean & Friends, Jefferson’s Fiddle: Music from the Collection of Thomas Jefferson

Here’s a review of a fascinating project that examines the musical side of the third president of the United States. Penned by Sue Hartman.

I don't think this is what the musicians on this album really look like. Well, except the flute player.

William Coulter, Deby Benton Grosjean & Friends
Jefferson’s Fiddle: Music from the Collection of Thomas Jefferson
[Gourd Music 141 (2010)]

Laura McClanathan and William Coulter are proud to announce the birth of their brainchild, Jefferson’s Fiddle, in the fall of 2010. McClanathan, a University of California at Santa Cruz library reference specialist, and Coulter, a guitarist, researched Jefferson’s involvement with music and selected the pieces, which Coulter then arranged and performed. He is joined by fiddler Deby Benton Grosjean, who brings classical training on the violin and many years of experience playing fiddle for competitions, dances, and recordings. She is also known as a teacher of distinction.

Jefferson was a man of many talents, which included playing fiddle and collecting tunes. There are extant records of his purchases of various violins and other musical instruments for himself and members of his family. Jefferson would spend two hours a day in practice during his time as a student at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, and those musical abilities brought entrée to the Governor’s Mansion, where he performed frequently with fellow students and was exposed to some of the best minds and orators in the Colonies.

Gourd Music specializes in acoustic music, and most of the label’s releases fall somewhere between classical, folk, and chamber music. This recording fits alongside those of its labelmates, presenting Celtic airs and reels alongside Italian art songs (presented instrumentally) and classical pieces by Arcangelo Corelli (Jefferson’s favorite composer) and Carlo Antonio Campioni, who was a contemporary of Jefferson. The original catalogue of Campioni’s music was assembled by Jefferson while he lived in Europe, serving as ambassador, and the manuscript continues to be studied as a source document for musicologists exploring Campioni’s work. Three selections represent the work of Maria Cosway, an artistic woman who was schooled in Italy and with whom Jefferson had an affaire du coeur. After they parted, Cosway and Jefferson maintained a correspondence, and she wrote several pieces of music for him.

The 15 tracks are well paced, interspersing upbeat dance tracks with calmer, more “cultured” tunes. Since Jefferson had interests in both the Colonies, where youth and spontaneity prevailed, and the Old World, with its rich cultural traditions, the recording was curated to reflect both facets of his life. McClanathan’s album notes bring valuable insight into the origins of the material, with just enough information to increase the enjoyment of the piece musically while whetting the listener’s appetite for further historical exploration in order to better understand Jefferson and his times.

Coulter and Grosjean are joined by musical friends who frequently support one another on the Gourd Music label’s releases, including Barry Phillips (cello), Shelley Phillips (Irish whistle, oboe, English horn), and label owner Neal Hellman (mountain dulcimer). Other contributors are Lars Johannesson (flute), Jennifer Case (pedal harp), and Linda Burman-Hall (harpsichord). The resulting music is a rich mélange of varied instrumental voices, tempos, and styles in delightful arrangements that never bog down.

—Susan Hartman (Baltimore, MD)

© 2010 DriftwoodMagazine.com, All rights reserved.

One comment on “Review: William Coulter, Deby Benton Grosjean & Friends, Jefferson’s Fiddle: Music from the Collection of Thomas Jefferson

  1. Thank you so much Susan for the wonderful review! Wish you could be in Santa Cruz for the CD release concert on November 5th.:) All the best to you, Laura McClanathan

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