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David Royko Psy.D

Mark O'Connor: Jam Session (OMAC - 15)

What might not be obvious at first glance is that five of the 9 cuts on Jam Session also appear on Mark O'Connor's 2003 release, the double-disc 30 Year Retrospective. For that, O'Connor, with Chris Thile, Bryan Sutton and Byron House, recorded the same program over several nights in July, 2002 and edited together final composite versions of the tracks heard on the two-CD set, so it's possible that the versions issued on Jam Session are not identical, but knowing O'Connor's perfectionist streak, I doubt he would issue anything other than the 'best' versions, and from my one listen through to Jam Session and fresh hearings of a couple of tracks from 30 Year Retrospective, these five cuts do appear to be the same. They're amazing, of course, but O'Connor really should have made it clear that half of the new disc is a reissue.

As for the four new cuts, no complaints (although Cluster Blues has some crackle in the recording). I think O'Connor's gotten quite good at press agent-style marketing hyperbole, though, when in the press release, he describes Thile's solo on Cluster Blues "the greatest improvised mandolin solo of all time." I have heard too many mandolin solos by Thile (and others) to agree, astounding as his playing on Cluster Blues is. The "jam session" aspect of the new disc might lead one to expect that all the cuts would have improvising by all (or most) players, but they don’t -- Minor Swing, for example, features a solo by O'Connor only, while Thile, Sutton, Frank Vignola and Jon Burr keep the rhythm chugging.

With all the live bootlegs of O’Connor, Thile, Sutton and the rest circulating in the underground, I'm surprised enough fresh tracks weren’t available to release a wholly new "Jam Session" disc, but as a listening experience taken on its own, what's not to like? The playing is extraordinary, and if you like this, I’d also recommend getting the entire 30 Year Retrospective set for the rest of the story.

David Royko

April 26, 2010