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The Graham Album Review #2183

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American Patchwork Quartet: American Patchwork Quartet

(Independent Release, as broadcast on WVIA-FM 1/31/2024)

In this series, we have noted the revival of folk music influence among a younger generation of artists, who are incorporating it into their original music. The folk music scene of the 1960s has inspired generations of musicians for over 60 years, including some of today’s artists. But until Bob Dylan popularized doing original songs in a folk music context, many folk music fans back in the day were purists, insisting on traditional material, played as authentically as possible. And back then, traditional folk usually meant Southern Appalachian traditions, derived from white, Christian, British Isles influence. There were a few African American folk singers, drawing on blues, and African traditions, such as the banjo, but the popular folk music scene was not very diverse – in fact it was basically an affirmation of a particular culture.

Recently, there have been some artists who have tried to bring a little diversity to the folk scene, drawing on the African American experience, groups like the Carolina Chocolate Drops, and their vocalist Rhiannon Giddens, and the fascinating 2022 release by Jake Blount. This week, we have an album that sets out specifically to take American folk songs and give them a joyfully diverse reworking. The group and the album are both called American Patchwork Quartet, which turns out to be a very appropriate name.

American Patchwork Quartet consists of guitarist/vocalist Clay Ross, of the band Ranky Tank a bi-racial group, which won a Grammy for Regional Roots album, vocalist Falguni Shah, known as Falu, a native of India and steeped in the Indian and Hindi vocal traditions, African American jazz drummer Clarence Penn, a ubiquitous figure in the jazz world, and Japanese born bassist Yasushi Nakamura, who has recorded with jazz singers Cecile McLorin Salvant and Kurt Elling among others. The result is as eclectic as you might expect, with the members influences providing a real confluence of cultures. The group can get electric, or sound folky but with a jazz beat, with the Indian ornamentation on Falu’s voice, sometimes appearing out of the blue in the midst of a song. While some the arrangements are more successful than others, the cross cultural conglomeration can be exhilarating.

As mentioned, American Patchwork Quartet concentrates on the traditional folk songs that were popular in the hootenanny days, that people used to sing along to, but this group often takes them in very different directions, with the songs with darker lyrics given appropriate musical settings.

The generous 14 track album opens with Beneath the Willow given a slightly jazzy beat and Falu’s vocal, with its Indian ornamentation making it a fun, worlds-apart from the familiar Carter Family version. <<>>

The group goes electric on Lazy John an Appalachian folk song about trying to get away from work. <<>>

One of the most creative tracks on the album is their version of the Scottish ballad, The Devil’s Nine which found its way into the American Folk music tradition. The instrumentation hints at an African kora, while Falu does some of the lyrics in Hindi. <<>>

Another familiar folk song on both sides of the Atlantic is The Cuckoo Bird, with its symbolic lyrics. Clay Ross writes in the liner notes that the cuckoo is sacred in India and represents unrequited love in Japan. But the arrangement here is quite electric. <<>>

The album’s lengthiest track is also another of its most familiar songs, Shenandoah. The arrangement is a creative fusion of drone-like like Indian influence with Falu’s Hindi-influenced vocals style, which leads into a kind of slow jazz setting. <<>>

The American Patchwork Quartet draws on some African American folk songs, such as Soul of a Man by Blind Willie Johnson, a song that has also been recorded by many over the years. The band here takes it in a funky direction, an interesting contrast to the lyrics. <<>>

The group does one instrumental on the album, Big Sciota, which turns out really nicely, with Ross’s fairly straight bluegrass style guitar, but the jazz rhythm section giving the arrangement a lot more depth. <<>>

Another piece that epitomizes the band’s creative musical amalgamation is the classic Wayfaring Stranger. The group put it into a sort of jazzy waltz rhythm and Falu brings her Indian influence to the vocal. <<>>

The group goes all out electric rock another familiar folk song, the spiritual called John the Revelator. It provides a contrast to other material, though it is not the band’s strongest suit. <<>>

American Patchwork Quartet by the group of the same name is a fascinating and creative project bringing together the diverse cultural influences that are part of contemporary America, to give that kind of approach to old folk songs that many associate with white Christian culture. The result makes for entertaining and absorbing listening that probably has the added benefit of driving the anti-woke demagogues crazy. The four musicians with four very different cultural backgrounds show how great things can happen when each contributes.

Our grade for audio quality, unfortunately, is a B-Minus. The recording is badly over-compressed, presumably to make it loud all the time, despite the mostly acoustic instruments and the subtlety of the arrangement. Worse still, some of the vocals sound over-driven and distorted.

Although many people have taken liberties with traditional folk songs, from Sixties rock bands to New Age instrumental groups, I think that the American Patchwork Quartet is one of the most imaginative and distinctive.

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