The banjo is to the guitar what the harpsichord is to the piano. Stiff and mostly resilient to broad nuance, it depends quite a bit on speed and complexity for its attractiveness. The soundboard off which the notes bounce is far less sympathetic to the sustaining qualities wood lends the guitar; thus, intricate interlocking runs and swift chords mark its territory as native traits rather than quite so much as choices. These qualities are what make the instrument so attractive, distinctive, and, as opposed to the harpsichord, engrossing, as the harpsichord carries about as glacial a sound as any instrument's natural tone can achieve, often either boring or completely offputting (listen to the endless plinking recitals from the baroque catalogue and see what I mean). Ironically, this poses the question as to whether the two, banjo and harpsichord, might be connubial. As far as I know, neither duets nor ensembles have been attempted, and one has to suspect it would require one hell of a composer to pull off such compositions in compelling fashion.
That the essence of bluegrass came from folk offshoots of the upper class' baroque musics, then, is ironic, and that much of Dixie, and hence: jazz, owes its roots to those antecedent European forums is equally wry, but few see how progressive the form has ever been, a liberality of spirit that thankfully continues provocatively in CDs like this one. While basic rock imported the elder Euro and moderner American strains, so did progrock, to about as spare an inclusion. Thus, groups like Sammla Mammaz Manna, Coronarias Dans, and even Gentle Giant (recall their love for hoedowny side-materials, if you will)—not to mention more exotic ensembles like Savage Rose's offshoot in Anders Koppel's work or even Pink Floyd, with its early plays on backporch Okie croons—kept a dimly enshrined respect for the venue lit. Recently, the phenomena of bluegrass and progressive grass have jump-started the form into higher gear and yielded some absolute gems, both on the prairie side and in marvelously mongrelized forms. In that, acknowledged wunderkind Tony Trischka has not been hesitant to up the ante boldly, producing this set of collaborations diving into the deep end of tradition while innovating like crazy.
The material, presentation, and performers here are top-drawer while energy runs exceedingly high in 14 cuts of sublime banjo duets trading chops in extremely polished group settings. The first cut alone, Farewell Blues, with its stunning side run in Mike Compton's mandolin solo, makes it clear these cats, sidemen as well as luminaries, will not only be pickin' 'n grinnin', but burnin' 'n churnin' to boot. Nonetheless, Trischka and the rightfully legendary Earl Scruggs, banjo's Chet Atkins, dominate the tune in ceaseless entwinings, one laying back a bit to let the other guy wail, then jumping out in front.
Not well known is the fact that Bela Fleck was one of Trischka's students and about as adroit an understudy as one could hope for. In the disc's longest tune, Twilight Kingdom, an 8:34 meditation and romp, a mid-tempo setting is established, providing the jumping-off point for a long segment of sparklingly speedy leads, all melodically set to pursue evolving themes. What's most interesting, though, is the contrast 'twixt that sedate opening and the amped-up main portion, illustrating far more of the spectrum of the banjo's expressive capabilities than is normally exhibited in a single selection.
Fleck and Scruggs are not the only big names here. Comedy's superstar Steve Martin sits in on two cuts—especially the joyous The Crow, a non-stop showcase of chordal picking and such—and if you thought perhaps Martin's repute on the 5-string unearned, a recognition lent through achievement in other talents, derived mainly from satire and acting skills, you'll find yourself much surprised. The guy's as good as most of the top-drawer dawgs, possessing a beautifully ornamentive way of playing, understanding where his axe's weaknesses lie and using a guitaristic approach. The CD also closes with him, in Plunkin' Rag, enjoying an equally poetic treatment, the two cuts constituting amongst the highest points in the smorgasbord. Especially listen for the slurred chords in Plunkin' Rag.
Along the way, Kenny Ingram, Tom Adams, Noam Pikelny, Alison Brown, Scott Vestal, and Bill Emerson set down fer a chaw an' rounds of string-yankin', but credit must be given to the sessioneers, who equally comprise the stellar and the jes' plain talented: Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Stuart Duncan (guh-reat fiddlin!!), and others, amongst whom I would've *loved* to hear much more from Compton, who wields one mean artistic mando.
So forget the shitkickin', boot scootin', Coors guzzlin', half-educated, pomaded idiots who might once have informed some of our dislike for country strains, because, first and foremost, bluegrass was ever the realest deal. If, like me, you tend to be a bit gun-shy around the back-40 and its array of good ol' boys and knee-jerks, but find yourself hot to fox-trot for flawless musicianship and jaw-dropping chops, this is the banjo CD you need to hear. On the other hand, if you're a grizzled long-term vet of the cornucopia of sterling American musics and perhaps a trifle dubious that the past can be improved upon, this is the banjo CD you need to hear. Lastly, though, if you treasure just plain great music, no matter where it may be found—rock, classical, jazz, prog, country—then, if I may repeat myself, this is the banjo CD you *need* to hear.
Edited by: David N. Pyles
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