In August of 2015 at the Podunk Bluegrass Festival (remember those?) I saw Mark Stoffel (playing with Chris Jones and the Night Drivers band) be spotlighted by performing a tune on the mandolin using purely harmonic tones. That made such an impression on me, that to this day, I’ll never forget it. I knew, as a beyond-beginner mandolin player, how to make a harmonic using the 12th fret, but certainly not how to go beyond that. At the time, when the band came over to the “merch” table, I was more intent on asking Chris Jones a question and never got to speak with Mark.
When the Hudson Valley Bluegrass Association offered a Mark Stoffel CD for review, I grabbed it. Having listened to it, read the notes and a few reviews, and seen a zoom video on Mark’s website of all the mandolinists playing “In the Mood” – orchestra style – I am so happy I did. Of the thirteen selections for Mark’s project, nine are originals by Mark. They catch your ear and don’t let go. Every selection is accomplished with excellent taste, tone and timing.
Not only is Mark’s playing re-“Mark”-able, but so is the man, himself. Mark grew up in Germany, yet acquainted himself with all kinds of American music. He is friends with Jens Krüger who taught him some bluegrass tunes. When Mark came to America, land of all this music, especially bluegrass, he fit right in. With a wife, two sons and in 2016 American citizenship, he settled down in Illinois. He has played with the band Chris Jones and the Night Drivers for over ten years. Chris Jones has been well-known in the bluegrass world for years and currently writes a humor column for the online magazine, “Bluegrass Today.” Likewise, that band has lasted for years. Mark also had a previous solo album One-o-Five in 2008.
The range of genres covered in his Coffee & Cake solo album (solo with lots of highly talented sidemen and sidewomen) is wide. Some are based on experience (eclipse shadowbands, a beautiful resort in Utah, his boys) and personal insight (edge of anger, sharing among friends). Some are on reverence of bluegrass masters (Bill Monroe, Kenny Baker) and of the incredible genius Buckminster Fuller (look him up!). And some were just “different!” Buck gets a waltz; Kenny Baker has a tune devoted to him, and somehow, someone uncovered a Bill Monroe tune called “The Old Mountaineer” originally released on Bean Blossom ’79 Live LP.
I particularly enjoyed his version of “In the Mood”, where he created a mandolin orchestra from among some of the greatest bluegrass and other mandolinists of our day to play it and it is worth seeing. There was great joy in the creation.
At the same time, it was great to hear the fiddle tunes, the Rag tunes and the other-than-what-you-might-imagine tunes like “Shadowbands,” “Driving me Madnolin,” and “Ying and Yang.”
Among the happy, pleasant compositions were “In the Ben Lamond” and “Finn and Ollie” (named after his boys). Which is not to say that other tunes are lacking in happy stuff, but best to listen to all for a great musical experience.
Among the side musicians were Ned Luberecki on banjo while Grace Van’t Hof made an appearance as well on both banjo and ukes. I had heard Ned give short banjo lessons via Sirius XM radio, but hearing him on many of these pieces gave me a new appreciation for his skills. Josh Morrison was frequently used as a solid guitar player, although jazz swingster Don Stiernberg took over on “In the Mood.” Rob Ickes got a chance to play Dobro. Bass was handled often by Ross Sermons, but also by Night Driver Marshall Wilborn. Fiddle was tossed between Becky Buller, Niall Murphy, Jeremy Garrett, and Aaron Till.
There are too many outstanding mandolinists in the “In the Mood” mandolin orchestra to name here, but, trust me, you’ll recognize most of them, such as Jesse Brock, who played recently at HVBA.
In sum, Coffee & Cake is a great break for us all as Mark gathers his musical friends around and plays his own compositions plus a few others. Enjoy!
In the Mood Players:
Mandocello and Octave Mandolin: Steve Smith
Mandola: Martino Coppo
Mandolin (in alphabetical order):
Paul van Vlodrop
Mountain Home Music