Tiny Moore and Jethro Burns' Back to Back is Back

Combine one legendary bassist, a world-class drummer, one of Western Swing’s all-time guitar aces, and two pioneers of jazz mandolin in one small room. Then mix in one visionary producer, and you’ve got the recipe for a session that shouldn’t be missed. And thanks to the foresight of David “Dawg” Grisman, it doesn’t have to be.
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Originally released on the Kaleidoscope label in 1979, Back to Back documented the historic and sizzling summit of jazz-mandolin giants Tiny Moore (who made a name for himself playing hot jazz solos with Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys) and Jethro Burns (a mandolin master perhaps best known as half of the Grammy-winning comedy duo Homer and Jethro). The date—conceived, coordinated, and produced by Grisman, who also played on three of the tracks—marked the first and only time Moore and Burns performed together, and featured the unbelievable rhythm section of bassist Ray Brown, drummer Shelly Manne, and guitarist Eldon Shamblin.

Thanks to a clause written into the contract, Grisman recently reacquired the rights to the landmark sessions, and Back to Back [Acoustic Disc] is back. The two-CD reissue includes the original 12 songs, plus a bonus track and 13 previously unreleased alternate takes that were discovered in a storage cabinet in October 2004. Here, Grisman shared his memories of the project.

How did this summit come about?
I took a lesson from Jethro in 1973, and we became friends. Then, around 1978, I took a lesson from Tiny and suggested the session.

How did you get such an amazing rhythm section?
I had done some work with Ray Brown, so I knew him. But those guys were working musicians in L.A. at the time, so we just called them up and hired them.

Still, those are some pretty impressive hired guns.
These guys were the ultimate jazz-mandolin pioneers. They deserved the best rhythm section available.

What was the vibe like?
It was a really good vibe. Ray and Shelly were consummate pros, and Eldon was amazing, as well. I think Tiny and Jethro were really grateful that somebody recognized them. They’d played all their lives as sidemen, and for someone to take their music seriously really meant a lot. And it was special for me, too. I mean, these guys are my heroes.

Who picked the tunes?
I picked the tunes, and had John Carlini do complete charts on about five of the tracks, including “Moonlight Waltz,” “Tickle Toe,” and Wes Montgomery’s “Back to Back.” All the solos, of course, were improvised.

What instruments were used for the recordings?
Tiny played the same 5-string electric Bigsby he played all the time, and Jethro played his red Florentine Gibson A5. I must have been playing my 1925 Gibson F5. Eldon played rhythm guitar on his gold Fender Stratocaster, and he was able to make that thing sound like an old jazz guitar.

What are the differences between playing jazz mandolin as opposed to traditional bluegrass?
The setup is lighter for jazz, as is the touch. Bluegrass is more blasted out. You’ve got banjo and other acoustic instruments, but it’s loud. Jethro was a master of chord melody, and he played a lot of really difficult things, so the main quality Jethro looked for in a mandolin was how easy it was to play. He didn’t really care what it sounded like, whereas to a bluegrass player like me, tone is the important thing.

Do any memories in particular stand out?
I remember those guys being blown away by getting a chance to play with Ray, Shelly, and Eldon. On the last day, Tiny was in tears. It was like the event of his life, and he didn’t want to leave. He didn’t want it to end.