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Ben Plotnick: Greenland
by George Graham
(Independent Release As broadcast on WVIA-FM 1/10/2016)
What came to be called the New Acoustic scene burgeoned in the 1980s with then-young artists like David Grisman, Tony Rice, and Bela Fleck combined backgrounds in rock, jazz and other styles into the instrumentation of bluegrass. By now, bringing jazz into bluegrass has become a standard feature among many bluegrass groups. So it is not as distinctive as it was, and there are fewer new recordings specializing in the genre. But the eclectic style continues attracting some younger generation performers. This week, we have an enjoyable album that would fit into the New Acoustic scene of the 1980s, with the instrumentation of bluegrass and jazz and swing influence. It’s by Canadian-born fiddler Ben Plotnick. His album is called Greenland.
Twenty-nine-year old Ben Plotnick is a native of Calgary, Alberta, where he started on violin at an early age, and by age 18 was touring with the Calgary Fiddlers, and led the viola section of the Calgary Youth Orchestra. He studied jazz at Humber College in Toronto, and has been performing with groups ranging from bluegrass bands to touring with the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Greenland is his third album as a leader. Recently, he has been based in Nashville, but went back to Toronto to make his album, getting together with Canadian musicians from various groups and styles. The subtitle of Greenland is “A Swing Record,” and there is a fair amount of swing and jazz influence, but old-timey-style fiddle tunes can be found, as well as a fair amount of Western Swing and Texas-style fiddle. And the album features several vocal tunes with different lead singers. The music is eclectic, but not as wide-ranging as some in the New Acoustic world. It’s swing-oriented, but not quite at the energy level as some who have been influenced by Django Reinhardt. Instead it’s a pleasing record that consists of mostly original material which sounds as if it was written many decades ago, in a traditional or swing-era sound.
Joining fiddler Plotnick are mandolinist Andrew Collins, guitarist Adrian Gross and bassist James McEleny forming the core quartet. There are five different singers who appear on lead vocals in various tracks, plus a banjo player, for the bluegrass tunes and a clarinetist for the swing-jazz influenced tunes.
Leading off is one of the nostalgic-sounding original swing-style tunes with vocals, On My Own, with Kelsey McNulty on the lead vocals and also accordion. The group nicely evokes the swing era. <<>>
The first of the instrumentals is called Molly’s Favorite. It’s another of Ben Plotnick’s original tunes that sounds as if it came from a past era. It’s a traditional-sounding fiddle tune that can evoke the Texas fiddle style. <<>>
More toward straight bluegrass is a piece called Abandon Ship! Giving the instrumental track more of a bluegrass sound is the presence of Frank Evans playing the banjo. Stylistically, it’s a kind of classic piece in the New Acoustic vein. <<>>
The album takes a rather different direction on a piece called Halfway Down the Track, which features the lead vocals of Jamie Oliver. It sounds like an old doo-wop era ballad, or maybe an old country tune in the Patsy Cline mold. It’s interesting but not the best the album has to offer. <<>>
The title track Greenland is another swing style song, with the lead vocals of Angie Hilts. Lyrically it’s whimsical, imagining eloping off to the arctic climes of Greenland. <<>>
One of the best of the New Acoustic style instrumentals on the album is a piece called Railroad to Babylon. It’s performed by the album’s basic quartet and has the best sense of authentic swing on the album. <<>>
Also with a decided Texas Western Swing sound, with acoustic instruments, is Town and Country Rag. The track features some of the album’s best fiddle playing. <<>>
Greenland ends with its one traditional tune, Redwing a piece that bluegrass bands as well swing groups regularly play. Plotnock’s band hews toward the swing-influenced side and puts in a spirited performance. <<>>
Greenland, the new album by fiddler Ben Plotnick is nice addition to the eclectic acoustic genre that goes back to David Grisman in the late 1970s. The album features tasteful playing all around, with most of the album coalescing around swing, bluegrass and Texas fiddle style. With several lead vocalists appearing at different times, it gives the album more variety of sound, though it means that there isn’t a trademark sound that the album settles into. The original material by Plotnick has a convincingly authentic sound, with the songs mostly seeming as if they came from the early part of the last century.
Our grade for sound quality is close to an “A”. The album was well-recorded by Andrew Collins in Toronto, who knew what he was doing with acoustic instruments, which sound warm and natural. The vocals are also well-handled, and the mix has everything in the right place. The dynamic range could have been a little better, with less volume compression for the sake of artificial loudness, but it could have been much worse.
While Ben Plotnick’s new album Greenland may not be the most innovative or virtuosic that the New Acoustic scene has produced, it is an enjoyable, tasteful, inviting record that spans a nice stylistic range.
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