Ethan Setiawan, a 2014 winner of the National Mandolin Championships at Winfield, Kans., is a rising star of the progressive acoustic style. Mentored by legendary mandolinist Don Stiernberg, Setiawan has produced a stirring CD of original instrumental music that sounds fresh and alive at its best. Filled with strong musical ideas, excellent playing, and a richness that belies the musician’s young age, Fluxis a positive debut from a mandolinist/composer I suspect we’ll hear much more from in the future.
Setiawan, who also captured top prize in last year’s RockyGrass mandolin competition, has a great knack for creating clever melodies and matching up those memorable lines with harmonies and strong rhythm playing. Unlike some contemporary players who record and perform as if they’re being paid by the note, this young player fully grasps the importance of leaving space in his playing, letting notes breathe, and allowing the mandolin’s sound to expand fully.
The tunes here range from off-kilter up-tempo pieces like the opening cut “Tacks” to the gloriously elegiac “Beller.” As you’d expect from a young instrumentalist and composer, some tunes here don’t feel fully developed or fleshed out into strong arrangements. “FSU” kind of falls flat right at the end, to my ear, and the following tune “Lamplight” doesn’t bring anything new melodically or rhythmically to the party. But all is forgiven on the wonderfully upbeat and engaging rendition of a traditional tune, “Booth Shot Lincoln.” All in all, Setiawan has pulled off one of the hardest bank shots in bluegrass, emerging as a great instrumentalist while also showing off impressive composing chops.
Backed by a killer group of young Turks on fiddle, guitar, and bass, Fluxoverflows with great playing and intriguing arrangements. Fiddler Julian Pinelli draws special attention for grabbing just enough of Darol Anger’s classic new acoustic grit and slipperiness, and guitarist Sam Leslie clearly imbues his playing with elements from the best modern flatpickers. The critical bass—always a huge issue for all-instrumental efforts where the bass must simultaneously create a solid foundation for the band while allowing itself the freedom to express fresh melodic and rhythmic ideas—is ably provided here by the wonderfully fluid and tasteful Jacob Warren. This is a worthy debut effort. Here’s to hearing much more from this bright musician. (www.ethansetiawan.com)DJM