Volume 13, Issue 33 ~ August 18 - 24, 2005

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Jordan Tice
from his CD "No Better Place"
Pickin’ through the Bluegrass
A Prodigy Follows in Family Footsteps
by Paula Anne Delve Phillips

Jordan Tice’s slender fingers glided easily across the frets of his guitar as he chorded, then soloed, through a Latin jazz arrangement of the Gershwin classic “Summertime.” Tall and slender, the 18-year-old moved gracefully with the music as he played for a performance being taped for the Maryland Public Television show Artworks.

Alongside him were seasoned jazz saxophone player and band leader Jeff Antoniuk and bass player Stan Hamrick. Teacher, adult student and Tice were demonstrating the effects of a year’s study in Antoniuk’s Jazz Band Masterclass groups, and Tice was doing his teacher proud.

“Jordan is the best young guitar player I’ve heard in years,” the elder musician said after the taping. “He’s got a lot of depth. I can’t wait to see what the next couple years hold in store for him.”

The television performance was a high-water mark in Tice’s jazz studies, which also included private lessons with guitarists Rob Levit and Tom Lagana and continues this fall with the full music scholarship he earned to Towson University. Yet all that jazz is meant to inform Tice’s first love: hillbilly music, the root of bluegrass and the new acoustic sound.

Learning his ABCs
Jordan Tice has been busy on the bluegrass circuit since he was 15. From age five, he played violin, switching to saxophone at nine. “I played it all through high school,” Tice says. “I play it now, but I started the guitar at age 12.” Tice grew up studying music at school, then playing and listening at home.

His parents, mother Sue Raines Tice and father Bob Tice, are bluegrass players who’ve played with the Annapolis Bluegrass Coalition for the past five years and with Bad Dog Bluegrass before that. Their four children grew up with music. At the table of their Arnold home, one might say pass the mandolin as easily as pass the salt in other homes. Indeed, the mandolin became one of many instruments that Jordan plays well.

“About once a week, they’d have people over to play music,” Tice recalls. Little brother Ramsey plays trumpet in the marching band at Broadneck High School. Older brother Evan and younger sister Celia play piano; she also dances ballet.

Tice’s first guitar was an inexpensive Asian copy of a Fender Stratocaster. For under $200, he could pick rock or jazz. With his father’s savvy, he moved up. Way up. At the age of 14 he purchased a bright red semi-hollow body guitar (the same Gibson ES-335 that he played on Artworks), paying a fraction of the usual cost at a West Street pawn shop. “That was an amazing find,” recalls Tice. “The story is, it sat in a guy’s attic. His father bought it new and never played it. It had all the warranty information.”

At the age of 16, when the gifted teen was getting into bluegrass seriously, he added another beauty to his collection. “My acoustic guitar is a Collings CJ, modeled after the Gibson J45,” Tice says. “It has a crisp, clear sound and it’s hand-made with real good craftsmanship. It really brings the notes out of the guitar. I bought it new with my parents’ help and all the money I ever made.”

Suited to the world of bluegrass, it was the kind of guitar that would satisfy him for years to come.

Despite the family ties, Tice’s move to hillbilly music was not automatic. He has what some players call “big ears,” and they are his own. Determined to develop technical skill and master a wide range of styles, he sought older, accomplished teachers outside the music his parents had chosen. But what’s bred in the bone can have a powerful effect. Three years ago, Jordan Tice discovered what he and his parents were made of.

Banjo Bit Me
Pete Reichwien is a Dobro-playing family friend who’d played with Sue and Bob Tice in Bad Dog Bluegrass. A distinctive player, Pete was interested in young players as well. When Pete was headed to upstate New York to the Gray Fox Bluegrass Festival, the elder Tices wanted Jordan to go along. Jordan would expand his horizons; he’d meet new people in a safe and peaceful environment; he’d hear some of the best of the music his parents loved. “They wanted me to be immersed in it,” he says, “and the community surrounding it.”

“I was really reluctant at first,” recalls Tice. Despite his reservations, he made the trip. That’s when the banjo bit him in a big way. “I got hooked there,” he recalls, naming a string of national recording artists who have all garnered lots of television coverage in recent years, especially with the popularity of the film, Oh Brother Where Art Thou?

“Nickel Creek was there. Del McCroury was there. Tim O’Brien, Ricky Skaggs were there that year. Some of them were more progressive and some of them were more original.”

“I was just taken by the energy of all the bands. I thought, I really want to play this.” That was three years ago. Two years later, Mark Schatz, the bass player from Nickel Creek, was recording on Jordan Tice’s first CD, No Better Place.

Making Music
Jordan Tice was discovered when most teens are just learning to drive. All of 16, he was at Baldwin Station in Sykesville, playing a bluegrass gig with singer-songwriter-guitarist Gary Ferguson and Mark Schatz on bass. Schatz plays with Nickel Creek, the nation’s hottest young new acoustic music band. The group played on Jay Leno in early August. Schatz is also music director of Chesapeake Country’s Footworks Percussive Dance Ensemble.

Some of the tunes the band did that night were written by its youngest member, Jordan Tice. They were “Celia’s Reel” and “Indian Summer.”

In the audience was Tom Mindte, owner of Patuxent Music, an independent record label specializing in American roots music. Mindte was impressed with the tunes young Tice had written. After investigating the young man’s potential, Mindte took him to lunch and offered him a recording contract with national distribution. Tice was about to turn 17.

This is no basement-level production; No Better Place is the real thing. First, it’s a diverse collection of 12 superb compositions, all but three by Tice. Second, the young player has surrounded himself with top-shelf musicians, much older national talent he’s handpicked and recruited with Mindte’s help.

No Better Place features the gutsy and soulful fiddle playing of Ron Stewart — who plays with J.D. Crowe and the New South — plus three versatile local treasures: Akira Otsuka on mandolin, Mike Munford on banjo and Mark Schatz on bass and clawhammer banjo. These multi-instrumentalists tour and record with the best bands in the nation. What lured such players to spend hours in the studio with a kid?

“Jordan had already decided to ask Munford, Otsuka and Schatz, who live here in the area and are familiar with Jordan and his music,” Mindte says.

“When we were discussing fiddle players, he mentioned that Ron Stewart was one of his favorites. I was able to approach Ron through a mutual friend. Ron agreed to do the recording after listening to a demo that Jordan sent.”

Mark Schatz was happy to join the local project and contributed in multiple ways.

“I did what I always do in a session,” Schatz said. “There were some arrangement concepts that were already set. But nothing was set in stone, and Jordan was open to input — to his credit — so we all contributed arrangement ideas.

“It’s fun when the other pickers are given some latitude,” continues Schatz. “It can make them feel more involved. I’ve also produced a number of projects for myself and other folks, so I’m comfortable throwing ideas around. But the same can be said for all of the players involved in that project: They were all veterans.”

Also reflected in No Better Place is all the time Tice has spent cross-training.

“These days the line between bluegrass and other genres has become quite blurred as the music evolves,” Schatz continues. “I believe that training in one area can only benefit a player in another, both compositionally and technically. For example, I would not label his new CD a purely bluegrass project. There are cuts that are very bluegrassy, others that can only be labeled contemporary acoustic. There are elements of jazz, Celtic and Latin music.”

A listener can spend a long time with this CD. No two tunes are alike, and it grows more interesting with replay.

“Banjo Bit Me in the Morning,” named by Jordan’s older brother, is the kind of rousing bluegrass piece that can fuel your day.

“I figured an album with these players needed one straight-up, slamming bluegrass breakdown,” Tice said of the song, written for the album. His playing on “Banjo Bit Me” is an updated version of traditional bluegrass flatpicking, which he says is “modeled after the style of flatpicking that is heard in Clarence White, Tony Rice and Bryan Sutton. I hope that song honors the bluegrass playing that has influenced me so much.”

Flatpicking was popularized by the Johnny Cash hit “I Walk the Line.” In that song, plucked bass notes were paired with a distinctive down-up strum. As with any new technique, it continues to grow and change.

The CD’s dancey tune, “Celia’s Reel,” is named for his little sister and has quite a different feel and the influence of the British Isles.

“Indian Summer,” the first tune Tice ever wrote — at 16 at Gray Fox Bluegrass Festival — is simple and sweet. But Tice’s compositions can be surprisingly poignant for such a young composer. “Things Left Unsaid” is a case in point. “Jean’s Reel” and “The Girls at Martinsfield” are a set from Cape Breton fiddler Natalie MacMaster, played on this recording by Jordan’s mother. The CD ends with the title tune, “No Better Place.”

No Place Better is a tasteful jazzy duet with Tice and Schatz. Rounding out a tasteful selection of well-informed tunes, it classifies as new acoustic music. Like Jordan Tice, that music takes the engaging instruments of bluegrass music to new heights and unexpected places.

The Journey Continues
In July, Tice returned from Ireland with the group Potomac Crossing after playing a big bluegrass festival in Athy (pronounced at-ti) Island. Potomac Crossing — Tice on his Collings CJ, Dede Wyland on rhythm guitar, Tom Mindte on mandolin and Nate Leath on fiddle — will return to the Emerald Isle next year.

Tice continues to play with more than one group. With Blue Light Special, he played a lot of bluegrass festivals in West Virginia and around the Shenandoah Valley this summer. That group features Tice, Gina and Malia Furtato (banjo and fiddle), Cody Brown (bass) Leah Needham (dobro) and Buddy Dunlap (mandolin).

He also has a duet with singer/songwriter/guitarist Gary Ferguson. Come fall, the gigging will have to slow down somewhat, when he heads for college.

There he’ll cross paths again with Jeff Antoniuk, who teaches jazz in the music program at Towson.

Wherever he goes, he’ll have those big ears working for him.

“Jordan is a musical genius,” Mindte says. “He absorbs sound and re-processes it into his own style in the manner of George Gershwin. There’s no way to explain it.”

No way other than what’s bred in the bone and nurtured by an encouraging community of musicians to help him thrive. The door they’ve opened for him stays open.

“Jordan already has enough new tunes for another album,” Mindte says. “He is going to wait until next summer, after a year at the Towson music department, to see what effect that experience has on his music.”

Stay tuned.

Now Playing
  • August 25 with Blue Light Special 1 & 5:30pm, Mr. B’s Bluegrass Festival: Ladysmith, Viriginia
  • September 4 with Gary Ferguson, Lewistown Firehall, Lewistown, Maryland: 301-694-3535
  • September 15 with Blue Light Special: 6 & 8:30pm, VFMA Jumpin’ Bluegrass Festival, Chesterfield, Virginia

Visit www.JordanTice.com for other upcoming performances.

About the Author
Paula Phillips is a local arts promoter, radio producer and writer. Her last story for Bay Weekly was “Gaelic Storm Blows Into Annapolis: How the founder of a big-time band found his way home,” on June 16 (No. 24).

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