It's cozy in a small room in the rear of the coffee bar. The first flakes of a gathering snowstorm are swirling outside, and on a dimly lit stage, guitar player Jordan Tice bends over his instrument, eyes narrowed, feeling his way through a few simple, mournful chords.
They're the opening sounds of "Ode to a Vending Machine," one of the dozens of original tunes that have given Tice, a 22-year-old Arnold native, the reputation of "an amazingly gifted guitarist and composer," in the words of Bluegrass Unlimited magazine, one of the holier scriptures in the world of acoustic music.
The mandolin, banjo and bass players behind him fall into a gentle rhythm. Rangy in a blue Oxford shirt, he guides the melody through a thicket of major-seventh chords, effecting a glide from old-time folk straight into jazz. The crowd erupts in applause.
"Prettiest vending machine song I've ever heard," quips banjo-playing veteran Mike Munford. "Makes me want to go buy a Coke."
If you think it can't be easy being a prodigy, you probably haven't met Tice, a soft-spoken graduate of Broadneck High who made his first solo album at 16, plays with some of the hottest young pickers in his business, and has the chops and ambition to leave industry old-timers predicting a long career.
"Jordan is at the top of the young talent," says Tom Mindte, owner of Patuxent Music, an independent record label specializing in American roots music. "He's amenable to any style and always comes up with something tasteful. And he's such a nice guy that people just like him."
Home from his adopted hometown of Boston, Tice is headlining the first of two shows that night at 49 West in Annapolis. He has known the old hands onstage since he was in middle school. Many in the crowd are the people who bolstered his early career.
As the snow begins to deepen in the streets outside, Tice's playing weaves Scottish reels, bluegrass breakdowns and jazz jamming into a comfortable whole. Inside 49 West, it's positively toasty.
In a scratchy falsetto that might do Ralph Stanley proud, he belts out a tear-jerker from the Depression era, "I've Endured," working solos on his guitar between verses.
Tice is just getting warmed up. But with his dimpled face, shy smile and effortless fingerwork on the fretboard, you wonder just what it is he has had to overcome.
Born the second son of Bob and Sue Tice, veteran performers on the Annapolis-area bluegrass scene, he grew up hearing live rehearsals in the kitchen and jam sessions in the living room, getting to know the area's most recognizable players as though they were aunts and uncles.
Like a lot of kids, he didn't always appreciate the fare his parents served. "Until I was about 13 or 14, it was like, 'Oh, Mom and Dad are having friends over; the house is going to be noisy tonight,' " Tice says. "Music was something that was just there."
He caught the bug as an early teen, though, showing right away that his tastes were his own. He listened ad nauseam to blues-rock legends the Allman Brothers, entranced by their dual, harmonizing lead guitars. He bought a Fender electric knockoff at a pawnshop. And as he embarked on lessons, Tice sought out instructors who could teach him the rudiments of jazz and classical playing.
"He didn't really play like anybody else," says Mindte, who first came across Tice performing at a Baltimore County restaurant. "A lot of young guitar players just copy [popular stars of the genre like] Tony Rice or David Grier. He had listened to it all and amalgamated it into his own thing."
In time he "circled back" to the family tradition. In 2002, at the urging of his parents, Tice visited the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival in Upstate New York, his first immersion in the form on such a big stage. There he saw widely known acts like Ricky Skaggs' Kentucky Thunder, Tim O'Brien and the Del McCoury Band all playing a style "with this incredible forward drive," each instrument urging the others forward and shaping a collective groove.
"That's about when I first felt 'bluegrass has an incredible energy,' " he says. And one more thing occurred to him: "My parents have this incredible storehouse of knowledge. Maybe I should pay more attention."
Some have described "new acoustic" music as extended improvisation on bluegrass instruments - generally banjo, mandolin, fiddle, guitar and upright bass. Others call it bluegrass that eases into other genres.
Many who play it, Tice included, resist describing the genre at all, but most agree it started during the 1980s when virtuosos like banjo wizard Bela Fleck, feeling cramped by by the four-chord structures and boom-chucka rhythms popular in the old Flatt and Scruggs-style tunes, started taking their instruments to places they had rarely gone before.
Emerging acoustic acts like Bela Fleck and the Flecktones incorporated elements of Bach. A decade later, Nickel Creek, a California group led by mandolin genius Chris Thile, pioneered a fusion of Celtic, jazz and Beatles-style pop, all driven by the churning rhythms familiar to bluegrass fans.
"Young people like Jordan have radios, iPods, access to every style," says Mark Schatz, the veteran multi-instrumentalist who backed Tice on bass at 49 West. "They've listened to pop and jazz as well as the traditional people."
It was inevitable that his approach, like that of many a serious young picker today, become a hybrid, Schatz says.
If Tice's ears and talent gave him a head start, the music community around him helped shape his career.
Pete Reichwein, a Davidsonville resident and dobro player known for mentoring young talent, put him in an otherwise all-girl ensemble, Foxes on the Run, that hit the local bar-and-cafe circuit when Tice was in his early teens.
He doesn't recall what he earned during his first-ever gig, at a bar near Frederick called Cactus Flats, but "playing out" certainly brought a sense of liberation.
"We played till 2 in the morning - on a school night," he says.
Mindte heard Tice playing one night at Baldwin's Station, a folk-music venue in Sykesville, and was impressed by his flatpicking - melodic lead playing on acoustic guitar - but also by the fact that several of his tunes were originals.
Mindte offered the 16-year-old a recording contract. Playing in a studio with Schatz and other top local musicians, he created "No Place Better," a 12-song CD that embraced flat-out bluegrass as well as lighter, more-lyrical material.
Mindte later made Tice part of a group that toured Ireland, trekking from County Kildare in the east to Galway in the West, and last year the same band played at a festival in Victoria, Australia.
Even for those with abundant talent, the acoustic music field is a tough market to crack, says Schatz, a resident of Crownsville who has known and played with Tice for seven years.
He ought to know. In a 30-year career, Schatz - who doubles as music director of the Footworks Dance Ensemble in Annapolis - has performed with most of the luminaries of the business, from flatpicking legend Tony Rice to Nickel Creek.
He sees Tice's multiple skills as a plus.
"He's a very well-schooled player and a creative flatpicker, but he's a very good writer as well," Schatz says. "That's much less common. He incorporates the rootsy, bluegrass elements, but he also has a contemporary flair, and he pushes himself to try new things."
Tice had writing inclinations from the moment he picked up a guitar - "just putting down stuff that sounded cool to me," he says.
As he traced out the tunes forming in his mind, he learned to complete the emerging phrases "the way I'd like to hear them," and out came a sound that evoked players he liked - jazzmen Bill Frisell and Pat Metheny, the Allman Brothers' Dickey Betts - and had a new sound of its own. Some early tunes spilled out as quickly as he could play them; others meandered through his mind for a day or more.
After graduating from Broadneck in 2005, Tice won a full music scholarship to Towson University, where he decided to major in composition - a choice that enriched his musical vocabulary.
The four years proved a launching pad. "After ... Towson, his tunes became more evolved harmonically and melodically," Schatz says. "So have his arrangements. There's some very interesting interweaving of acoustic instruments. Some of his material isn't all that easy to play."
For Tice's second record, Mindte brought in some of America's most innovative young players, including star fiddler Casey Driessen and banjo innovator Noam Pikelny, to help the artist flesh out his vision.
"Long Story," released last year, features 10 tunes, all originals, and represents a quantum leap in Tice's progress, from the contemplative instrumental reverie "Chincoteague," to "Sofia," which weaves banjo, fiddle and guitar into a sprightly reel with subtly shifting rhythms.
"Good pickers are a dime a dozen. But a great writer is a rare find," writes Chris Eldridge, another critically acclaimed acoustic guitarist, in the liner notes. "It's not enough to have inspired melodies running around in your head. You also have to find the discipline and focus to form those ideas into a complete musical statement. [This] collection establishes Tice as a musician at home with both inspiration and craft."
At 49 West, Tice deploys both, leading his band through a few dozen originals and covers.
The show marks a triumphal return of sorts. Last May, he moved to Boston, a mecca these days for aspiring new-acoustic artists. There, steady work as a teacher gives Tice the time to compose, jam with colleagues and do the odd paying job, be it writing a song for a friend's record or accompanying a classical quartet.
This year, he'll be leading a new band in several gigs in the Northeast. He's writing tunes specifically for the group, which includes a young virtuoso, Simon Chrisman, on the hammered dulcimer. "He's a rhythmic monster," Tice says, practically salivating at the new opportunity.
For now, though, he's in Anne Arundel for the holidays, making music as the snow piles up. High school buddies toast him from one table. Mentor Mindt is on hand. Tice's mother, Sue, even breaks out a fiddle, jumping onstage for two foot-stompers.
"My mom!" the star proclaims as the crowd applauds. For a guy who's going places, he seems right at home.
CDs by Jordan Tice
"No Place Better" (2005)
"Long Story" (2008)
"Corbett, Chrisman and Tice" (2008)
CDs available at pxrec.com. To hear music by Jordan Tice, visit jordantice.com/08site/records.htm