Matt Flinner often waits until the last minute to write his songs. But it’s not because he’s a procrastinator. When he’s on tour with his trio, the high-profile mandolin player will write a few new songs each day and perform them the same night for a live audience. The “Music du Jour” tour, as he calls it, is one way for the trio—comprised of guitarist Ross Martin and stand up bassist Eric Thorin—to continually challenge itself. And that’s saying something, considering they’ve played with talented bluegrass musicians like Tony Furtado, Leftover Salmon, Open Road and Theory of Everything.
“It’s often really nerve-racking because we may not get our tunes finished until an hour or less before the show’s supposed to start,” says Flinner. “And then we have a hurried rehearsal. I guess part of the fun of it is we don’t really know for sure what’s going to happen and so the audience doesn’t know. I mean, we could crash and burn really badly. We’ve had a couple of near crash and burns.”
It’s not as though the trio gets a chance to leisurely sit down and write each morning, either. Being on tour means being on the road, so they spend their driving time with a notepad and pencil to come up with songs, fine tuning them only when they’ve reached a destination and can pull out their instruments for a run through.
“I was in a separate car from those guys,” says Flinner, “but apparently [Thorin] would often have a pencil and notebook on the steering wheel. It seems to work well for him—he writes great tunes. Whatever works as long you don’t get killed.”
The group recently recorded an album, Music du Jour, consisting of 12 of their favorite day-of instrumentals—fusions of bluegrass, Celtic and jazz—composed over three different tours of the West. All three musicians have spent substantial time living in and around the Rocky Mountains, but currently only Thorin, who lives in Denver, makes it his home. Martin works and plays music in New York, and Flinner lives in Nashville.
“Certainly for bluegrass music Nashville really is the best,” says Flinner, “and the level of musicianship—the average jam session or when you go out to hear music—is just really high. So it’s an inspiring place to be and to learn from others by proximity.”
But even with a potentially easy circuit between Nashville and New York, Music du Jour tours have always happened solely in the West—mostly because it’s still where all three of the musicians feel most at home.
“People coming to hear this kind of music in the West definitely tend to be open minded musically, so it’s always a friendly crowd,” Flinner says. And, he notes, because the songs are written out in wide-open spaces, the music itself has an expansive, spacious feel to it. “We love the West,” he says. “If we’re going to be driving around from one place to the other and be inspired, we’re comfortable with the wide open range and mountains and the people, too.”
Flinner says playing in places like Jackson Hole, Wyo., or in Victor, Idaho, where he used to live, make the tour worth doing beyond the exciting challenge of writing songs on the fly. He says he loves the intimacy of gigs in small towns, like Rollinsville, Col., where they once played to only a couple of people on a snowed-in evening, or in Haley, Idaho, playing in the former home of poet Ezra Pound.
Since the trio can only realistically write a few new songs per day, the Music du Jour shows consist partly of traditional covers and older originals along with the du jour songs. Flinner says the du jour songs might have come out differently had they not been written so quickly, but he thinks it’s that extra pressure that builds the trio’s writing strengths.
“It pushed us to keep variety in the way we wrote and we keep getting better at writing on the spot,” he says. “I think the quality came out surprisingly great. I mean, we really didn’t know what to expect from writing like that on short notice.”
In addition to the wide-open West and the thrill of a time limit, history helped inspired the trio’s du jour style.
“Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue album was supposedly at least partially written the day it was recorded,” he says. “I think the spontaneity of that record is beautiful, and the musicians all rise to the occasion. Also, I find it difficult to finish tunes once I start writing them, so imposing a deadline seemed like a good exercise and a good way to get some new music out there. And, we were also just curious to see what would happen.”
Now on their fourth Music du Jour tour–the first one kicked off in August 2006—the trio is promoting their new record and continuing to write daily songs in order to create material for future recordings. And he says that because the trio lives so far apart, tours like these give them a chance to work up new material, keeping their writing skills sharp.
“I think it’s getting easier but we keep trying to challenge ourselves to not repeat ourselves and to try new things so that it’s always challenging,” says Flinner. “I think it’s just part of that sense of danger that makes it more interesting. It’s made us a little more willing to do something spontaneous, made us a little more courageous in our music.”
The Matt Flinner Trio plays the Downtown Dance Collective as part of their Music du Jour tour Friday, March 27, at 8 PM. $15/$13 advance.