• Technique as Connection - Master Musician Jody Stecher on New Album Dreams from the Overlook

    Jody Stecher - Dreams from the Overlook

    The songs and tunes on Dreams from the Overlook are perfectly spare, sweetly melodic and, by turns, funny, ruminative and mesmerizing, with punning instrumentals like "Bread and Taxes," "The Wrong Fish" and "The Cousin Brothers" couched alongside comically-christened vocal numbers like "Ragtop Ford" and "Don't Despise a Spider."

    An ambitious 31-track double disc, Overlook, seems, as the title suggests, like something you might have imagined. But here's the rub. It's not your dream; it's Jody Stecher's.


    From the album, the track "I Don't Know the Muffin Man." Session musicians include Jody Stecher on mandolin, Chad Manning on fiddle, Tony Trischka on banjo, Kate Brislin on guitar and Ethan Jodziewicz on bass.

    Stecher, 74, says the project was spurred by writing "Oh The Rolling Wave," a meditative mandolin and voice number that recalls, in its trancelike hum and its poetic title, his 1977 arrangement of "Oh, The Wind and Rain" — still a hallmark at the nexus of folk tradition and new acoustic music.

    The passing of three dear friends in close succession was the inspiration for "Wave," Stecher says, giving him both pause and purpose.

    "They all died the same year, and I just put aside a bunch of non-musical projects, and got going with all these tunes and songs that I really wanted to get recorded."

    Michael EckAbout the author: Roots scholar and multi-instrumentalist Michael Eck is a respected songwriter, nationally exhibited painter and award-winning cultural critic. A signature artist with Weber Mandolins, he plays with Lost Radio Rounders, Berkshire Ramblers, Good Things and Spancilhill.

    If the impetus was, to some degree, dark, the music is not. Careening from ancient fiddle tunes, to old campfire novelty songs, and from historic Greek airs and classic Celtic jigs to Persian rarities, Overlook is a global journey through folk tradition, except that, like your dream, it's not.

    Jody Stecher

    A student and master of many forms, Stecher composed or co-wrote every selection.

    "That's what everyone says," he laughs. "They all sound like folk songs!"

    "You know what Bill Monroe said about this — he said the music is always happening. It's out there all the time. You just tune in and pull it out of the air. So, in a way, I suppose I'm doing that."

    Stecher, a musician's musician whose history includes work with artists as wide-ranging as Peter Rowan, Krishna Bhatt and Alisdair Fraser, was clearly on a mission to make Overlook, which is available as disc or download only from he and wife Kate Brislin's website.

    Album Track Listing

    • Bread and Texas/ Katy In The Kitchen
    • Chumstick Beans
    • Shimmering On
    • The Overlook
    • Ragtop Ford
    • Oh The Rolling Wave
    • I Don't Know The Muffin Man
    • The Lost Brothers
    • Tanglefoot Blues
    • Perfik
    • The Tea Thieves/ The Invitation
    • The Cousin Brothers/ The Orpheum Hornpipe
    • Hot Philouries/ Rhododendron
    • Little Fortune
    • Sheets and Buckets
    • A Waltz Like Midnight (mandolin)
    • Bingo Arms
    • Leslie's Waltz
    • Fast Track To Richmond
    • Meehan's Mighty Mallet/ The Helpful Hint
    • The Fourth Night/ The Giant Rat of Sumatra
    • Hey Don John
    • Don't Despise A Spider
    • So It Goes
    • Fajans
    • The Nine-Way Cannonball
    • Snowball Blues
    • If I Die In California
    • The Snoring Sassenach
    • The Wrong Fish
    • A Waltz Like Midnight (mandola)

    To realize that goal, Stecher employed a cadre of pedigreed cross-generational players over the course of three sessions in 2019 — including guitarists Brislin, Scott Nygaard and Keith Little (doubling on banjo); five-string ace Tony Trischka; mandolinist Bill Martin; cellist/tenor guitarist Tristan Clarridge; fiddlers Chad Manning and Tashina Clarridge; and bassists Paul Knight, Sharon Gilchrist and Ethan Jodziewicz.

    The set's title, alluding to a secluded San Francisco hilltop rather than Stephen King's wintry hotel, actually refers to the fact that Stecher, his head filled with a career's worth of writing, playing and teaching such stuff, truly envisioned much of the material.

    "Yes," he says, "a number of these pieces came to me while I was asleep, in my dreams. Not daydreaming mind you, but actual dreams."

    A multi-instrumentalist who makes his recorded ukulele debut with a lovely tune for Kate dubbed "Little Fortune," Stecher says that as he has grown older — fellow eight-stringers might say wiser — he's gravitated more and more to mandolin.

    "I've always got one out of its case nearby and ready to play. A friend of mine, who's not a musician, once told me I play mandolin like it's part of my body. I'm very comfortable with it."

    Across Dreams he employs a variety of well-researched techniques which sound, on paper (you'll want to read the extensive track notes on the website), like pure flash, but play out with a subtlety and nuance that sounds so natural as to be easily missed.

    "I did my share of showing off when I was 14," Stecher, ever gracious, humbly says. "Then I got over it. It's in my nature to try and make music beautiful rather than impressive. I love it."

    In "The Nine-Way Cannonball," for example, Stecher bends low strings high on the fretboard, sounding, ultimately, more like the fiddler he is than like a bluesman.

    In "Bingo Arms" he tackles a lesser-hailed aspect of Big Mon's attack.

    Jody Stecher

    "Bill Monroe had this technique where his downstroke was a fingered note and his upstroke was the open string, like in ‘Panhandle Country.' Every upstroke is the open string whether it makes musical sense or not!"

    And in the genteel "Leslie's Waltz," he brings an etude-like precision to a tune that floats by lightly.

    "I'm playing a lot of high-pitched notes on the fat strings, way up the neck, and combining it with open ones. It's not the obvious way to play some of these melodic passages, but the sound is completely different, and I'm also usually doing it with a continuous downstroke, just letting the plectrum fall from one string to the next. I'm also using a sarod technique, from Northern India — there's a characteristic ornament where you pull off from a high string on an upstroke and then land forcibly on the string below with a downstroke. I'm doing a lot on that one."

    While Brislin has largely retired from touring, Stecher would still have been playing some dates if not for the pandemic. A sound hound, for quarantine's sake he had to stay away from the mastering session for "Dreams" — a first in decades of recording.

    But the discs, completed by Michael Romanowski, sound "glorious," he beams. He notes that the downloadable version features mp3s rather than his favored WAVs due simply to the sheer amount of music contained with the project's scope.

    "I'd rather they be heard in the best audio format possible," he admits, "but I'll settle for what I can get!"

    Stecher, of course, plays his favored 1984 Stan Miller A-style on many of the collection's selections.

    It is, he says, something of a wonder, with "the most phenomenal chop," but also a ‘wet' tone, which allows it to "sound a little more like a fiddle when I want it to."

    In addition to the uke, guitar and tenor banjo found on Dreams, Stecher plays a relatively new acquisition — a rare bird JBovier mandola, which he praises as having the perfect ‘purple' sound he has sought for 30 years.

    "Don't ask me," he chuckles, "I can't explain it."

    The 1941 Gibson F4 on the cover also gets plenty of air-time.

    "It's from the last batch they made," Stecher muses. "It's got a Fern mandola headstock and the way it vibrates, it gives the mandolin a lot of bottom. It's fair to middling for rhythm, but it's a wonderful lead instrument. It's just like a bell."

    Jody Stecher

    Stecher says that he doesn't change his singing when he plays mandolin, but he does alter his playing a bit.

    "For example, even though the mandolin isn't tuned low, when I'm being the whole band by myself, I'll do the equivalent of bass lines sometimes."

    A fair number of pieces on Overlook, Stecher notes, were inspired directly by guiding students to their strengths, including "Fajans," which was prompted by Stecher urging a young guitar player — co-writer Nate Levine — to freely express his own grief at the loss of a young friend.

    As a teacher, we asked Stecher, what is the single piece of advice he would leave us with today.

    "To understand what technique is for and why I emphasize technique," he said. "It's not so you can become a technician. It's not so you can show off. It's so you can have a direct connection between your creative imagination and how your instrument sounds; so that your hands become reliable and whatever you're thinking, whatever comes to you, will come right out of the mandolin because you can trust your hands."

    "That's my answer. If you ask me a minute from now, I may say something different."

    Additional Information

    Comments 11 Comments
    1. Todd Bowman's Avatar
      Todd Bowman -
      Great article! Heading over to purchase the album!

    1. Cary Fagan's Avatar
      Cary Fagan -
      After I wrote an article on old time mandolin for the Old Time Herald, Mr. Strecher wrote a letter to the editor complaining of the people I left out, including himself. I was happy to stand corrected. I've just bought my copy and can't wait to hear it.
    1. John Soper's Avatar
      John Soper -
      A great read. Heading to his website to purchase.
    1. Glassweb's Avatar
      Glassweb -
      Superb... Jody's music and musical soul go deep... always an inspiration!
    1. Michael Romkey's Avatar
      Michael Romkey -
      Here’s some welcome news. Can’t wait to give it a digital spin.
    1. John Flynn's Avatar
      John Flynn -
      I took a short workshop with Jody at a music festival in Missouri in the early 2000's. Minute for minute, it was the best mandolin instruction I have every had and I have take workshops from some of the big names.

      His approach was different than any other instructor I've had. He said, "Play me something you think is easy and then play me something you think is hard." I did. Then he said, "Here is what you need to work on and how to work on it..."
    1. dan in va's Avatar
      dan in va -
      What a wonderful tune. Is the whole album like this?
    1. Jody Stecher's Avatar
      Jody Stecher -
      Hello! Jody here. Thanks for all the wonderful comments. I've just now put a video on Youtube showing how I play "I Don't Know The Muffin Man". I've had a number of people ask me how it's played, especially the third line in each of the two parts. So I demonstrate this in the video.
      Here's the URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qBj5...ature=youtu.be

      "dan in va" asked if the whole album is like this? Well, it's all of equal quality (I hope). The overall mood is uplifting I'm told but it's not without some mournful songs and tunes. But not *too* many!
    1. Mandolin Cafe's Avatar
      Mandolin Cafe -
      An interview with Jody and Kate just produced by Steve Winnick of the American Folklife Center of the Library Of Congress.
    1. Mandolin Cafe's Avatar
      Mandolin Cafe -
      Another feature interview celebrating an anniversary today.
    1. Mandolin Cafe's Avatar
      Mandolin Cafe -
      Nothing the anniversary of this feature.