Categorizing the music of the Andrew Collins Trio is an exercise in futility.
Collins himself is hard-pressed to find the right descriptors.
“There’s still no convenient way to say what kind of music I play,” Collins said in a phone interview from his home of Toronto. “Everyone who is not into bluegrass thinks it’s bluegrass, and everyone in bluegrass says, ‘That ain’t bluegrass.’”
The temptation is to put a bunch of adjectives in front of the word “grass” — words like “chamber,” “new” or “jazz.” The problem is finding the right one. None really encompass the kind of boundary-pushing, inventive music that Collins is making with band mates Mike Mezzatesta and James McEleney, on a variety of string instruments, including mandolin, bass, guitar, mandola and mandocello.
On the trio’s new double album, “Tongue & Groove,” the songs range from Pink Floyd’s “Goodbye Blue Sky” to David Grisman-style swing, a reflection of Collins’ interest in mining new terrain, similar to the musical explorations of Bela Fleck, Darol Anger and Grisman, one of the Collins’ primary influences.
Growing up in Toronto, Collins was a passionate music fan for years, tinkering periodically with guitar before a high school friend and banjo player, Chris Coole, introduced him to bluegrass.
A few years later, he saw Grisman play in Washington state, a life-changing event. Grisman, a mandolin player and frequent collaborator with Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, has a unique style dubbed “Dawg Grass,” that melds traditional bluegrass with jazz. It swings in a way that is much different than the Bill Monroe school of bluegrass.
“About five years after falling in love with mandolin, I broke down and bought one. After Grisman, I couldn’t help myself. And it took over my life very quickly,” Collins said.
He took lessons and studied intensely, and within months, picked up gigs. Collins later studied bluegrass in South Plains College in Texas and jazz at Humber College in Toronto.
Considering his influences, incorporating elements of jazz and classical music into his playing and composing was a logical step.
“All these guys like Bela Fleck and Grisman, they hone their chops through bluegrass and start taking their formidable skills into other genres,” Collins said. “Some of my tunes might sound like straight-ahead jazz but a good portion of music is drawing from many styles.”
Collins is well-known in Canadian folk music circles and has been nominated for five Juno Awards, Canada’s version of the Grammys, and has won five Canadian Folk Music awards. The Toronto Star has called him a “musical scholar of the highest distinction.”
For all those accolades, Collins may be most fulfilled with he and his band’s appearance at MerleFest last week. Collins journeyed down to Wilkesboro in 1994, and discovered Gillian Welch, who had won the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest the year before.
“I was blown away,” he said. At that MerleFest, Collins also saw some of his heroes — Sam Bush, Vassar Clements and Tony Rice.
“The idea that I’d get to play MerleFest just never would have occurred to me,” Collins said. “To come as an artist is exciting.”