This is a part of Rounder's anthologization project, here culling tunes from Tony Rice's 21 releases (!) for the label, either solo, as the Tony Rice Unit, or in collaboration. I must confess previous ignorance on the composer/player, and this disc comes as a very nice surprise. In point of fact, the music here is so unbelievably good that I'm astounded I've never run across him heretofore. Rice at times has an almost John Denver-ish voice but a much sharper arrangement sense and a far more dynamic style, then seems to adopt a Gordon Lightfoot ambience (as on the superb rendition of Joni Mitchell's Urge for Going, which I, frankly, like better than the original), a gent he previously tributized. Elsewhere, he brings up his own pipes. Interesting.
The sub-title to the CD is The Singer-Songwriter Collection, which might at first lead the buyer to assume the reference is to Rice himself, but that's not so. The main title, Night Flyer, is taken from John Mayall's song of the same name and every cut, save for two by him and brother Larry Rice (both previously unreleased), is by a composer Rice admires (Newbury, Dylan, Tyson, etc.). Tony, however, renders each in a way we tribute-hounds long for: broad and supple interpretation in earthily razor-sharp acumen. The guy is a roots folkie, well respected and able to attract some of the best talent in the biz: Vassar Clements, Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush, Bela Fleck and others atop a base unit that smokes when it gets down to business, as in St. James Infirmary, with Wyatt Rice (<—— note the surname, please!) playing an impeccable lead guitar beside a brother who's quite the picker and strummer himself. The simultaneous density and airiness of the cut even calls as far over as to John Martyn, himself ever an extremely wise composer and arranger.
Rice has a supernatural propensity for swinging vivacity that's not of an ilk with swing music per se but rather a product of deep understandings in his chosen style, its natural rhythms and how they can be expanded. The polish to each cut is stratospheric, many as smooth as Steely Dan in their own way but executed so that not a drop of talent or depth is sacrificed, as sometimes is the case in less skilled hands. That, my friends, is a very rare accomplishment. Listen to the complexity of the intro to Phil Ochs' Changes as it leads into vocal lines devilishly difficult to master, but carried off as though Rice himself wrote them. And his take on the chestnut Wayfaring Stranger? It captures and redemonstrates the blues inherent in many antecedent Americana musics, an element too often shed by the less insightful. And did I say there were only two unreleased cuts? Well, there's a third, his duet with pianist Jon Carroll on Tom Waits' Pony, an unusually stark number softened by the sensitivities any Waits tune is lined with.
Rarely are CD booklets done correctly in any venture, no matter the genre, but what's presented here is a small gem. First, Rice comments on many cuts, opening insight into the man's aesthetic processes, then Ron Block (banjoist & guitarist for Alison Krauss and Union Station) devotes several pages to a highly sympathetic and well-written overview, culling more quotes from Rice. That's the kind of coverage we liner-junkies live for. All in all, then, this is an extremel* well done and extraordinarily artistic anthology. No better vehicle could be imagined as an introduction to this superb player and composer. In the end, it becomes apparent that Tony Rice exists in a category all his own.
Edited by: David N. Pyles
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