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(Native and Fine Records As broadcast on WVIA-FM 6/6/2012)
There seems to be something about the banjo that encourages musical eclecticism. The instrument seems to be quite limiting, with its lack of much sustain or dynamics, but its place in history in America is rather fascinating. Probably the best known musical explorer with the five-string banjo is Béla Fleck. But his mentor Tony Trischka, and veteran artists like Bill Keith, and younger-generation players like Noam Pikelny, of the Punch Brothers, have all made albums that take the instrument well beyond people's expectation of bluegrass, and the tradition of the late Earl Scruggs.
The latest notably eclectic banjo recording is by Bill Evans, the West-Coast banjo player, teacher and author, who is not to be confused with the jazz-rock fusion saxophonist Bill Evans, whose own CD we recently featured in this album review series.
Banjo man Bill Evans came to prominence in the 1980s as part of the then-burgeoning New Acoustic Scene, in which a lot of players were taking the instrumentation of bluegrass and exploring new fusions with jazz, rock and world music. Evans had a band called Cloud Valley, then based in Charlottesville, Virginia. Since then, he has worked with a wide variety of other artists, including New Acoustic guru David Grisman, Tony Trischka, and Peter Rowan.
Evans spends a lot of his time teaching, and counts a number of prominent contemporary banjo players as his alumni, including Chris Panolfi of the Infamous Stringdusters, and Greg Lizst of Crooked Still. He is the author of the what has become the world's most popular banjo instruction book, Banjo for Dummies, as well as havng produced instructional videos.
His own recording output has been not been that frequent. He attracted a fair amount of attention with his 1995 Rounder Records release Native and Fine, and later issued Bill Evans Plays Banjo, and in 2009 put out a fine joint album with fiddle player and vocalist Megan Lynch called Let's Do Something, which we featured in this review series.
Now Evans is out with a CD called In Good Company, which is a series of collaborations with a significant number of guest players, including Tim O'Brien, the members of the Infamous Stringdusters and Joy Kills Sorrow, plus fiddlers Stuart Duncan and Darol Anger, mandolinists Mike Marshall and Matt Flinner, vocalist Laurie Lewis and several others. With a large and varying cast of players, the CD is suitably eclectic, with instrumental tracks in the jazzy new acoustic style, as well as straight bluegrass, and material ranging from original music to a traditional spiritual to a medley of Beatles songs done instrumentally. It's all nicely done, and though Evans is the leader of the proceedings, the banjo does not hog the spotlight, in fact there is one part of the Beatles medley on which Evans does not even appear.
The twelve-track CD opens with one of its instrumentals, an original piece called The Distance Between Two Points. It's in classic New Acoustic style, with the harmonic complexity of a jazz tune, and nice playing by the gathered luminaries, who include Mike Marshall on mandolin and Todd Phillips on bass, both of whom were part of David Grisman's pioneering New Acoustic group. There are also three fiddles, including another Grisman alumnus Darol Anger. <<>>
One of the more interesting combinations is the performance of a song by the late English folk singer-songwriter John Martyn, Walk to the Water performed with the members of the Infamous Stringdusters, including Evans' former student Chris Panolfi appearing making for two banjos in the group. <<>>
More in the straight bluegrass mode is an original by Evans called Big Chief Sonny, which features bluegrass notables David Grier on guitar, Stuart Duncan on fiddle and Matt Flinner on mandolin, along with bassist Missy Robins, his old bandmate in Cloud Valley. <<>>
Vocalist Tim O'Brien makes his appearance on one of the CD's highlights Follow the Drinking Gourd, an old spiritual. O'Brien also plays bouzouki, and Laurie Lewis provides backing vocals. The track otherwise features most of the same personnel as Big Chief Sonny. <<>>
Also featuring a guest vocal appearance is the track On and On, written by Sarah Siskind. This performance features the members of Joy Kills Sorrow, including singer Emma Beaton. It's another well-put-together piece that further underscores the eclecticism of the banjo on this CD. <<>>
Four of the tracks are taken up with an instrumental medley of Beatles songs. The opening piece Mother Natures Son mainly features Mike Marshall on mandolin and David Grier on guitar. <<>>
The medley also includes You've Got To Hide Your Love Away, Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds and a great rip-roaring bluegrass version of A Hard Day's Night. <<>>
The CD ends with a original instrumental called They Say You're Never Lonely in Louisville. It's done as a jazz ballad like a guitar trio but with the banjo, joined by jazzy bass and drums. It's a nice change of pace but not the album's strongest moment. <<>>
With his new CD In Good Company banjo player Bill Evans adds his contribution to the cannon of eclectic banjo projects. The veteran five-string player, instructor and author is joined by a fairly large and impressive guest list on this CD, making it a kind of summit of contemporary New Acoustic players. The combination of notable collaborators, worthwhile original material and creative choices of material to cover, makes this an engaging and interesting recording, as well as one on which on which the playing is impressive.
Our grade for sound quality is about a B-minus. The acoustic instruments are well-recorded and have decent clarity, but much of the CD was badly over-compressed for an acoustic recording, attempting play on the CD loudness wars, and in the process having all the dynamics and life sucked out by pushing everything to be maximally loud all the time.
The banjo may not be able to do what other instruments can do in sonic capability, indeed its limitations have often been the subject of jokes among musicians. But contemporary banjo players have been helping to redefine the role of the instrument. Bill Evans, and the "good company" on his new CD continue the banjo's renaissance and it makes for great listening.
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