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music: Mining Music's Essence

Geoff Muldaur reinvents traditional blues, jazz and classical music, sometimes by interchanging the three.


His arrangements give new life to songs by masters such as Leadbelly and Sleepy John Estes.

"I got this knack," Muldaur explains by phone from the Long Beach, Calif., airport. "Maybe I hear things [and] then I change it around and Muldaurize it. I don't know, man. I'm just pulling some essence out."

When grabbed for this interview, Muldaur is waiting to head to New York City, where he is arranging and recording chamber music takes of compositions by jazz great Bix Beiderbecke. Beiderbecke is one of Muldaur's inspirations, and this recording has been in the works for about five years.

"I'm redoing and reshaping [Beiderbecke] … rendering it more like W.C. [Handy] than jazz," he says.

If this were not enough to fill the plate, Muldaur is also scoring eight films for the National Institute of Health before he heads off on a tour of the Eastern United States, England and Germany. The tour includes a show at Ashland Coffee & Tea March 26.

"[The film project] is multikey modern music with cello, French horn. Very elegant... That's that," he says. "Then I get to play gigs in my troubadour suit. That's my 401K and what I like. Get up in front of 62 people and play."

Blessed with a warm and expressive voice and this knack for hearing things in songs others don't, Muldaur's troubadour style is one informed by years of listening and learning. He grew up near New York City in the 1950s on doo wop, jazz and blues.

"The world was full of music," he says. "We were white kids in the '50s, dancing to Jimmy Reed songs at parties. It doesn't get any funkier than that."

Muldaur says he learned to play guitar and sing "mostly from the school of hard knocks," and during his long solo career, he has always enjoyed digging in and looking at traditional music in new ways. He also played with others such as the Jim Kweskin Jug Band and Paul Butterfield's Better Days, who shared a similar sense of musical exploration. He took some time off from performing in the 1980s and 1990s but continued to hone his composing and arranging skills. During the past couple of years, "Handshake" and "Password" put him back on the road, and he is a familiar guest on Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion." Tack on film scores and chamber-music rehearsals and recording and it's no wonder Muldaur adds, "I can't wait for July," a parting shot about a little vacation ahead as he waits for one more airplane at one more airport. S

Geoff Muldaur plays Ashland Coffee & Tea, Wednesday, March 26. Show starts at 8 p.m. and tickets are $14. See for details.

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