From the title of this CD album it should be clear what it's about…right? Well it takes a little explanation. You remember Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass music…right? And you probably have heard of Kenny Baker a great fiddle player who worked in Monroe's band for a long time and collaborated on many of the tunes that Bill is famous for? In 1976, Mr. Baker recorded a fiddle album of Monroe tunes called Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe. Bill Monroe even showed up and recorded some of the mandolin work on that album.
Now in 2013 along comes a banjoist, Noam Pikelny with an idea: why not re-record the Baker album with the banjo playing the lead melody? Mr. Pikelny had been associated with the band called Punch Brothers which played progressive bluegrass. Lately Pikelny had been developing his own style and issued two other CDs.
Now he decided to go for an album of traditional Monroe tunes and used those previously recorded by Baker as his set list. So why don't I go back and re-listen to Baker's album? Well in the current album there has been some magic done. Noam's virtuoso banjo playing allows him to imitate fiddle notes very closely and with the addition of the other great musicians on the project, gives tunes like Road to Columbus a new feel and freshness.
All of the tunes on Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe are classics and well worth hearing again in this refreshed context. Noam's banjo playing is not traditional. He plays a lot of single string notes. Where more typical banjo players would be playing the next four notes of a tune, Pikelny is laying down what seems the next sixteen. Not that it is a speed contest. Just imitating the fiddle music as closely as possible on a 5-string.
The band includes Duncan Stuart, a very talented fiddle player who adds counterpoise (after all they were originally performed as fiddle tunes). Also included are Ronnie McCoury of the Del McCoury Band on mandolin, Bryan Sutton on guitar and Mike Bub on bass. These are top flight musicians in their own right and they were given latitude to add their own style and feeling to the tunes.
With all the mega-musicians on the CD, it is possible to have conflicts in who is going to dominate. Not in this case. Pikelny and Stuart trade back and forth seamlessly. McCoury comes in strong on the mandolin when needed but tastefully. His playing on Lonesome Moonlight Waltz is outstanding. Bryan Sutton provides rhythm and lays down some hot flat-picking guitar licks too. The bass is right on and keeps everything on track.
Playing waltzes is tough on a banjo and Noam delivers on the two waltzes in this set. The tunes Big Sandy River and Wheel Hoss are delivered way up tempo but smoothly. In all, Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe is a great work and worthy of an audience. All I can do is look forward to more from the new "banjo man".
Edited by: David N. Pyles
Copyright 2014, Peterborough Folk Music Society.
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