Kittel & Co.
“Some of the most engaging people I’ve ever worked with have a real vision while being willing to explore—following, rather than dictating, the creative energy.” — Jeremy Kittel
That ethos is central to the new release, Whorls, from Kittel & Co. The album’s title refers to patterns of spirals, an apt metaphor for the undulation between the outsize skills and free-spirited instincts that drive its sound. A dazzlingly original work, Whorls inhabits the space between classical and acoustic roots, Celtic and bluegrass aesthetics, folk and jazz sensibilities.
Previously of the Grammy-winning Turtle Island Quartet, Kittel demonstrated similar scope as a composer-arranger- collaborator for such diverse artists as My Morning Jacket, Yo-Yo Ma & the Silk Road Ensemble, and Bela Fleck & Abigail Washburn. But for the last few years, the Brooklyn-based artist has been diligently building his own repertoire of music for a wholly original new group.
Kittel & Co. includes mandolin phenom Josh Pinkham (named “the future of the mandolin” by Mandolin Magazine), genre-bending guitarist Quinn Bachand (a presidential scholar at Berklee College of Music), transcendent cellist Nathaniel Smith (as heard with Sarah Jarosz and Kacey Musgraves), and hammer-dulcimer wizard Simon Chrisman (acclaimed for bringing a new tonal flexibility to the instrument). “We met gradually over the years, through festivals, shows, gatherings,” Kittel says. “Each really struck me with their uniqueness, for being a singular force on their instrument.” These musicians are as prodigious as they are world class: Most aren’t even 30 years old.
Their musical contributions to Whorls are visceral, yet precise. “The guys have an incredible combination of skill and intuition. Says Kittel: “It’s been so moving to be part of a whole, when the music starts taking off and everyone is supporting, balancing, breathing together. In those rare moments, it’s as holy a thing as I’ve ever experienced.”
“Chrysalis,” a levitating tapestry of these stringed instruments, is one of Whorls’ standout achievements. “The melodies are interwoven, shifting over time,” Kittel says. “It’s in some ways intuitive and in some ways heady.” Its foil is “Preludio,” Kittel & Co.’s rich arrangement of the J.S. Bach piece, who had penned it as a violin solo. “I’m blown away by Bach’s music,” Kittel says. “That piece is so spiritual, and I had a sense that integrating it with the guys’ rhythmic sensibilities could be challenging, but moving.”
In the same vein, “At Home in the World,” named after a collection of writing by Daniel Pearl, honors the late journalist. Years ago, Kittel was the first to receive the Daniel Pearl Memorial Violin. “I’d always wanted to write a tune in tribute to his way of doing things, his attitude and curiosity,” Kittel says. Simultaneously hopeful and bittersweet, the track is a reminder that even the album’s quietest moments are never inconsequential.
The beauty of Whorls—co-produced by Tyler Duncan (Vulfpeck, Theo Katzman)—often comes from its unpredictability. Most notably, Kittel, for the first time, sings on an album. In “Waltz,” (also featuring Sarah Jarosz’s ghostly harmonies), he intones plaintively about moving across the country. “It’s really a song about loss, uncertainty, and the passing of time.” And on the melancholic, itinerant folk ballad “Nethermead,” his vocals explore “the mystery of any human connection.”
In contrast, Kittel initially wrote “Pando” for other musicians to perform. He penned it in 2014, when the Detroit Symphony asked Kittel, a Michigan native, to curate a concert there. He invited songstress Aoife O’Donovan, guitarist Julian Lage, bassist Paul Kowert, and conductor Teddy Abrams to collaborate. “I think we all feel fortunate to be part of an incredible acoustic scene spanning the U.S. and beyond,” he says. “‘Pando’ was a natural tune to recast for Kittel & Co.”
The concept of bringing people together underlies much of Whorls. There’s a rhythmic undercurrent that trickles through the album in tracks such as “The Boxing Reels.” This was intentional. “These instruments have a rich tradition of playing dance music. They were the way people got down, say, 150 years ago. Acoustic string bands in a room,” he says, naming everyone from Björk to Indian musicians to Son Lux as modern reference points. “It was just as vital for dance gatherings in past times as modern dance music is in our culture today.”
“Locking this in rhythmically and sonically, finding the balance of intensity—that has been really exciting,” Kittel adds. “The coalescence of musicians and different instruments created a singular voice.”