Let us lay the groundwork. This is a banjo album, true, but it is not just a banjo album, for Jake Schepps is a musician before he is a picker. Picking might not even be the term for what he does with that instrument here. On Expedition, he takes it with him into some of the strangest territory imaginable, short of classical, and the hybrid of what he accomplishes is downright impressive.
That hybrid is some combination of bluegrass, country, rock and jazz which has to be labeled progressive if not given a whole new term. Other banjo players have stepped in that direction, Tony Trischka, Pete Wernick and Bela Fleck among them. Like them, Schepps avoids the pitfall of making the instrument the sole center of the music. Instead, he places the banjo within an ensemble, and what an ensemble it is!
He surrounds himself with the obvious best musicians he could find, lays down a template and lets them go. On Lennon & McCartney's When I'm 64, they go back to fifties and sixties country music, almost Chet Atkins style, but with the feel of the Texas Playboys or the swingin' side of Asleep at the Wheel. It's jazz but it's country, with a tinge of bluegrass just in the lineup of instruments. This is the kind of stuff parent and child can enjoy together, provided they enjoy acoustic country/jazz, because the musicianship here is, as it is everywhere on the album, outstanding. Luis Bonfa's Samba de Orpheus creates more era magic, stepping into solid jazz with a topnotch arrangement of that classic tune. Ross Martin's guitar is stunning, as is Greg Schochet's mandolin, Eric Thorn's standup bass and Schepps' banjo, as impressive in a backup role as it is lead. The band even throws in their version of David Byrne's Civilization and makes it work. And Schepps shows reverence for one of banjo's innovators when he includes Emile Grimshaw's "A Footlight Favorite", a banjo composition which would have worked well on the vaudeville circuit—or anywhere, come to think of it.
The originals are on that level too, Schepps providing six exceptional self-penned works. Blue Collar leads off the CD and is as good an example of progressive bluegrass as you'll find anywhere, partially due to the constant trade-offs among the players. It features the kind of arrangement that gives musicians like Jerry Douglas and Mark O'Connor such credibility. Sorrento Waltz has a bit of a Raindrops Falling On My Head aura, Moo Cow has barn dance and breakdown all over it, and Warbonnet has that modern country/folk thing going, helped along by the understated and topnotch resophonic guitar of Ivan Rosenberg, not to mention superb guitar of Schochet, so I won't mention it. Guitarist Benny Galloway adds two of his original songs, Master of the Ages and Beyond the Blue, each more than likely requested by Schepps. They afford the banjo and resophonic guitar what must be some fun moments.
This was released in 2005, but you cannot fault Schepps for "re-servicing" it, as they used to say in the radio and record biz. This is timeless music and is just as fresh now as it was then. Timeless. Look it up. It's under 'T' in the dictionary. I already looked it up and placed Schepps under 'S' in my collection where it will remain for some time to come. Guaranteed.
Edited by: David N. Pyles
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