Burn On

Edwin Huizinga and William Coulter - Fire and Grace - flank mandolin player Ashley Broder, or Ash. The trio play two shows at Big Sur’s Henry Miller Library.

The eclectic duo of Canadian violinist Edwin Huizinga and Santa Cruz-based guitarist William Coulter known as Fire and Grace has electrified local listeners for some time now.

Their playlist is a monument to musical diversity and crossover brilliance embracing classical from Bach to Vivaldi, fiery Argentinian tangos, Celtic and Irish slip jigs and reels, and even traditional Bulgarian and American fiddle tunes and waltzes.

Last March the two players were joined by ace Southern California mandolinist Ashley Broder for a rousing, packed-to-the-gills session in Folktale Winery’s barrel room. But it wasn’t until last summer’s Bach Festival that Huizinga knew things might take a new turn.

“We had been quite comfortable with one another from the very beginning,” he says. “But last July was the moment when all of us realized we wanted to be a band and do an album.”

That show featured a fiery, very well-received reading of Coulter and Huizinga’s arrangement ofPartita Americana, which combines the music of J.S. Bach and six traditional American songwriters. It is also the title of the trio’s forthcoming album, which they recently finished recording in Big Sur.

Huizinga says he feels a special connection to Big Sur. “Whenever I go there, I can just feel the draw of all the incredible artists who have lived and worked there,” he says.

When Huizinga began rummaging through his mind for a suitable recording space, he came up with something unexpected and unique.

“We ended up being holed up in this beautiful barn there with great acoustics,” he says.

The trio’s appearance in Big Sur this weekend has already sold out one show with a second one added. The gig also fulfills a longstanding wish for Huizinga, who first visited the Henry Miller Memorial Library to hear the Red Hot Chili Peppers as the guest of Beach Boy Al Jardine.

“Ever since I came to Big Sur 14 years ago,” he says, “I have always wanted to play the Henry Miller Library. Sometimes in life it seems like it can take years and years for things to come to fruition. I’m so excited to come back for these shows. It’s a dream come true to return to play the music I love in a place I love so much.”

The amalgamation with Broder happened when Coulter and Huizinga made the decision to delve more deeply into the Americana genre. (Coulter already knew of Broder as an ace mandolin player.)

“The mandolin is a cornerstone of traditional American folk music so once we decided to dig into more Americana, we had to have the mandolin,” Huizinga says. “[Broder] is a brilliant instrumentalist. It’s a truly great fit.”

Turns out the mandolin and violin are quite similar in that all four strings of each are tuned to the same identical pitches. Even more important is that Broder is classically trained, like her bandmates, and is equally proficient technique-wise. She is also a talented composer in her own right, which makes writing and arranging collaborations possible between the three musicians.

All of this creates an entirely new set of melodic and harmonic possibilities for the trio, like duet melodies and parallel harmonies between mandolin and violin or the same between guitar and mandolin. The mandolin can also double as a chordal instrument, which frees up the violin and guitar to share melodic lines.

Huizinga says both he and Coulter were immediately taken with Broder’s effusive joy for the music they all love.

“We just clicked as human beings,” he says. “Her technical abilities and the groove she has on her instrument are really substantial, and the addition has broadened our soundscape into something new that we’re really excited about. The tonal colors of two plucked instruments and a bowed violin make so many beautiful sounds possible.”

The original duo – Huizinga and Coulter – almost never met. Five years ago Coulter needed a violinist for a crossover concert in Cleveland of Baroque orchestral and traditional Irish music. Friends recommended the classical violinist, but Coulter declined, saying he was specifically seeking an Irish fiddler.

As the concert date approached, the violin slot remained unfilled. The festival director sent Coulter a link to a YouTube video of Huizinga backstage at the Carmel Bach Festival – only instead of warming up on classical music, he was jamming with mandolin ace Mike Marshall.

“They were improvising on an old Bill Monroe bluegrass tune,” Coulter recalls. “I saw and heard tremendous enthusiasm and freedom. Edwin had an amazing sound and beautiful classical intonation but he could still jam on bluegrass music, so I decided to give it a try.”

That try has yielded quite a musical journey. “He turned out to be very open to new ideas and doing new things with old music,” Coulter says. “Here we are a few years later, still having an absolute blast with each other.”

A May 8 release party is set at Kuumbwa Jazz Center in Santa Cruz, in advance of a summer tour to points east like Pittsburgh and New Hampshire.

FIRE & GRACE & ASH 7pm Saturday, Jan. 26 (sold out) and 3pm Sunday, Jan. 27. Henry Miller Memorial Library, 48603 Highway 1, Big Sur. $32-$54. 667-2574, eventbrite.com

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