There appears to be no string instrument that Andy Leftwich can’t play and play well.
Whether picking at a guitar or mandolin, or alighting on some fiery flight of fancy on the fiddle, Leftwich demonstrates a virtuosity and feel that makes his debut disc, Ride, a remarkable outing that is an amalgam of bluegrass and jazz, a reminder that these two seemingly disparate musical styles are, like all music, born of the same passions.
The 22-year-old Leftwich, who plays with the critically acclaimed Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder, is considered something of a prodigy in the bluegrass field. He started playing professionally at age 15, after playing in and winning an array of amateur contests — including Tennessee State Championship for Beginners.
His expressive and impressive fiddle playing can be found on discs by the Chieftains, Trick Pony, Pam Tillis, Bering Strait, Travis Tritt, Steve Warine and the Nashville Chamber Orchestra, and it has been featured on several television shows — including PBS’ The Three Pickers on which Leftwich joined legends Skaggs, Earl Scruggs, and Doc Watson for an evening of electrifying bluegrass.
Skaggs has said that Leftwich is one of the finest musicians he’s worked with, telling the magazine Country Standard Time, “He amazes me with every new lick he delivers.”
Leftwich cites Skaggs and numerous other fiddle and mandolin greats as inspiration, but also borrows from jazz greats like Miles Davis, Stephane Grappelli, and Django Reinhardt and even tosses in a little classical and big band swing.
It is this mix of styles, as I said, that makes this disc such a joy to listen to.
Opening with a picked guitar “Prelude” set over Rob Ickes’s dobro, Leftwich swings his band into this surprising mix of bluegrass, jazz and traditional Appalachian sounds with a fire and passion sustained throughout by a commitment to technical precision, thanks in no small part to his own playing and the contributions of his remarkable band.
Leftwich is equally adept at mandolin and guitar — his simple solo on gut bucket guitar on “Shining Waters” is as expressive as anything on the disc, set atop the interplay of his insistent fiddle and fast-paced mandolin, with Rob Ickes’s dobro responding. And the traditional “Jesus Loves Me”, which features only Leftwich on mandolin, is simply two minutes and 21 seconds of breathtaking music.
But it is his lyrical fiddle playing, which swings from the explosive — as on “Breakpoint”, “Slaterville”, and “Shark Tooth”, which also feature fiery banjo and guitar work from Richard Bailey and Travis Alltop — to the lush — “A Greater Love”, on which he rotates among fiddle, guitar and mandolin — to the more traditional sounding bluegrass of “Leaving Hampshire”, on which Leftwich (on fiddle and mandolin) and Bailey (on banjo) seem to be marching in step musically from the Granite State south to fight for the Union. Even on the disc’s weakest cut, “An Angel Forever”, which seems to lack the emotional intensity of the other tracks, Leftwich’s breathtaking talent is undeniable.
Ultimately, the disc’s best cut is Reinhardt’s “Minor Swing”, on which Skaggs guests on mandolin and “chunky boy” guitar. The song brings all of Leftwich’s disparate influences together, emphasizing the jazz sensibility that underlines the rest of the disc, but never letting go of his bluegrass background.
With Ride, Leftwich has made it known that he will be an important part of the future of bluegrass music.