Near the end of a performance full of technical cunning, scholarly variety and especially keen ensemble intuition, Jeremy Kittel held his violin outward so all in the audience Tuesday night at the Weisiger Theatre of the Norton Center for the Arts in Danville could inspect the damage of his performance.
The instrument’s bridge was bent at a severe angle. That’s kind of like a swimmer unexpectedly discovering that he has broken his arm before a final competitive lap.
Luckily, nearly all of the concert’s heavy lifting was behind him at that point.
Kittel comes from a growing line of instrumentalists who use bluegrass inspiration (or, in his case, a variant of it) as a launching pad for compositions and improvisations rooted in jazz.
The compositional side favored lyrical warmth that retained a more plaintive side of bluegrass, as shown by The Curious Beetle Medley, which played nicely off the gentle antique tones of hammer dulcimer provided by Simon Chrisman. The show-opening Flight of the Mastadon played more extensively with timbre, tempo and harmony, with Kittel, cellist Nathaniel Smith and mandolinist Josh Pinkham shifting lead, rhythm and even percussive duties.
In terms of sheer fun and invention, nothing beat the chamber-style reimagining of the Jimi Hendrix anthem Hey Joe, which stripped the dulcimer of its fanciful charm and turned the song itself into a patient, folky meditation.
But what might be interpreted as strictly Americana inspiration in Kittel’s playing is really more global in nature. The performance regularly embraced traditional Irish music, be it overtly (as in the richly detailed The Foxhunter’s Reel) or more discreetly (as in a new untitled piece Kittel said was informed by the soul singing of Al Green and Bill Withers, even though it seemed to rely more on Celtic finesse).
With the bridge out, so to speak, the Kittel band encored not with a final blast of cross-generational, cross-continental string music, but with its lone vocal number: a retiring reading of Gillian Welch’s Hard Times.
In other words, after an evening of genre-hopping, globe-trotting and all manner of instrumental mischief, the group closed the show with unaccompanied four-part harmony singing. How curiously fitting.