The Big North Duo was born when Paul Prato (bass) was offered a gig at a friend’s restaurant with a violinist. As he put it: “We did a couple gigs and it just didn’t really work with the upright bass and the fiddle. So, I thought, why don’t I talk to Christian?” Paul and Christian McKee (mandolin, mandola, vocals) had played together in different bands for seven years by that time, but had never considered forming a duo. It wasn’t all smooth sailing at first: it turns out they didn’t have the knack for Italian folksongs, and even rejected their first band name, The Mandolinos. But after assembling a group of old swing, country and blues numbers they liked, the course was set. Their 2011 self-titled debut CD, recorded in McKee’s garage, was almost entirely jazz standards with only one original composition, and listeners will quickly note the band’s development since.
Since then The Big North Duo have performed hundreds of concerts in all settings, developing a deeper song list with an increasing number of original tunes. In 2014 they released “Sunday’s Waltz,” an atmospheric CD spanning years of all original material, some written for the record (“Mombassa”) and some from the earliest days of Paul and Christian’s collaboration (“Treadwell”). The mournful title track sets the tone for the record, which is generally more introspective than their upbeat live performances.
In summer 2017 The Big North Duo released their third CD, “Two Wheeled Twister,” made up almost entirely of original material. In an effort to break new ground for themselves, the Duo recorded one third of the twelve song record with just their two instruments, one third with drummer Matthew Higgins, and one third with guitarist Jason Reichert. The result is their fullest and most ambitious release to date with more diverse instrumentation, richer harmonies, and more challenging material.
Now when The Big North Duo plays the audience smiles, toes tap, and everyone gets a break from the workaday world. The music still comes from the deep catalogs of classic swing, blues and country, but also features original material drawing from those traditions. On any given night the music may be swinging hard or it may be mournful, but it’s always from the heart.
Christian played Suzuki violin as a child, and was an enthusiastic choral singer until eighteen. Then he started listening to more instrumental and improvised music, and after hearing Bela Fleck And The Flecktone’s album “Live Art,” decided to pick up an instrument: saxophone, mandolin, or guitar. Christian says “mandolin won out because it was cheaper than a horn, it felt more accessible, and I figured there were enough guitar players already.”
Never one to do things the easy way, he has since pulled the mandolin kicking and screaming into a variety of unconventional musical situations, including electric fusion jazz and ear-rattling rock and roll. “Mandolin is my main instrumental voice, but I’ve really come to enjoy playing the mandola, and like to find opportunities to use other mandolin family instruments – particularly in the studio.”
In addition to his role in The Big North Duo, Christian is a full time parent to a young daughter, plays with other bands in the Portland area, and is the Musical Director of the Oregon Mandolin Orchestra.
Growing up on the banks of the mighty Hudson River and starting out on electric bass a long time ago, Paul never thought of playing the upright bass in band as eclectic or unique as The Big North Duo. Or, for that matter, even learning to play the upright bass.
Paul started out on guitar at age 15 and rented an acoustic guitar from the local music store. “At 15 I was going to teach myself how to play; ‘Who needs lessons, right?’ I failed miserably.” But Paul had a friend who played drums and his older brothers could actually play guitars. They needed a bass player and he was enlisted. Eventually they were good enough to play New Band Night at New York’s legendary CBGB’s. They were disappointed that they weren’t asked back because as Paul says, “in our minds we were on our way to rock stardom. I’m still working on that.”
“Taking the musical journey from punk to rock to country-Americana and on to swing has prepared me for the various tastes of my band-mates and their influences.” Paul would like to thank for all the folks that support our local, live music here in Portland, OR and beyond.