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The Graham Album Review #2194

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Ezra: Ezra

(Independent release, as broadcast on WVIA-FM 4/24/2024)

Bluegrass has been the epitome of folk music, in sense of being handed from one self-taught musician to another, with little in the way of formal academic training. Or that is how it was. But like jazz and rock, more players are coming from an academic background, graduates of college music departments and conservatories, with the level of musicianship in the acoustic music world seeming ever to be higher. This week, we have a bluegrass-instrumented album whose players are very much from an academic background. In fact the album came about when the group’s leader used time from a teaching sabbatical to create the music for the recording. The group and the album are both called Ezra.

Ezra is led by guitarist and composer Jesse Jones, who from an early age had an interest in becoming a classical concert pianist, practicing six to eight hours a day, until he broke his arm at age 19. While he was recuperating, he started on mandolin while he was still in a cast. That led to being a member of a bluegrass trio called String Helix, as he was studying at Eastern Oregon University. He would go on to a masters at the University of Oregon, and a doctorate from Cornell. His primary interest was in classical composition, and basically stopped playing his string instruments for 10 years as he concentrated on orchestral compositions and teaching, first at the University of South Carolina and presently at Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio.

Jones also became a luthier in 2020, building most of the instruments he plays on the new album, and saying that the instruments inspired some of the tunes.

Jones met mandolinist Jacob Joliff when the latter was but 11 years old, at a bluegrass festival in 1999. They began a friendship, with a shared musical interest, shared initials and a shared birthday ten years apart. Joliff was also one to practice many hours a day. He eventually attended the Berklee College of Music in Boston on a full scholarship, and toured with the group Joy Kills Sorrow, and joined the popular bluegrass jam band, the Yonder Mountain String Band.

Jones met bassist Craig Butterfield in 2013, when both were teaching at the University of South Carolina, and sharing an interest in the New Acoustic music of artists like Chris Thile, and Bela Fleck, as well as their common classical background. Jones and Butterfield made three duo albums together.

Rounding out Ezra is banjo player Max Allard, who was classical composition student of Jesse Jones’ at Oberlin. But Jones encouraged Allard to compose for the banjo in an orchestral setting. During a short winter term at Oberlin during January, Jones invited Butterfield, Jolliff and Allard to be part of a residency for a limited number of students. Jones also used the opporunity to present his compostions to the three, who had not previously played together and arranged for recording time after a week rehearsing at Jones’ house.

The result is the debut album by Ezra, with the compositions of Jesse Jones, playing on instrument he had built during the pandemic. The instrumentation is bluegrass, but the style is the sort of eclectic mix of influences that has marked the New Acoustic Music scene since the 1980s. The nine instrumental compositions show Jones’ classical background in their structure. The quartet show their influence by some of the more contemporary bluegrass/New Acoustic practitioners like Chris Thile.

Opening is a piece called Smoke in the Valley which shows Ezra’s eclectic, non-traditional influence from the complicated phrasing and somewhat melancholy sound. <<>>

Jarrah has a more bluegrass-oriented sound. The track is named for the type of wood Jones used to build the guitar he played on it. <<>>

An appealing though rather contemplative-sounding piece is called Garden Gate with banjo man Max Allard taking the lead for most of the tune. <<>>

An interesting and quirky-sounding piece bears the flippant title Contrabuffoon. The composition reflects that kind of mood, though the level of playing is quite serious. <<>>

The banjo takes the lead, at least at the outset of the composition called Banjaleena but piece shows different facets with solos by others in the group, and shifts in time signature. <<>>

A tune named after the Ezra’s mandolinist, called The Jolly Joliff is another exercise in acoustic eclecticism, put in the context of a jazzy swing rhythm. Naturally Jacob Joliff’s mandolin gets time in the spotlight. <<>>

The album ends with a piece called Dix Neuf on which Jones is heard on piano. With the bowed bass playing in an almost percussive way, the result is an interesting fusion with a kind of dichotomy between contemporary classical influence and bluegrass. <<>>

Ezra the eponymous debut album by the Ohio-based quartet led by guitarist, and instrument maker Jesse Jones is nicely done in what I suppose could be called, “progressive new acoustic music,” with the instruments of bluegrass and an even wider palette of influences than the previous generation of eclectic acoustic music. Jones, who spends much of his professional time creating orchestral music, shows his classical influence, and says that many of the compositions came out of experimenting with instruments he had built, such as a guitar tuned like a banjo. The other members, who though they knew each other, actually worked together for the first time on this album. Jones says that they have material for perhaps two additional albums ready to go. It’s all first-rate and will likely delight fans of Chris Thile or the Goat Rodeo Project recordings.

The grade for audio quality is an “A,” with a nice, warm, unfettered sound on the acoustic instruments. The recording was made in a church in downtown Oberlin, Ohio. Dynamic range is better than average for most recordings these days.

Almost forty years on from the rise of the New Acoustic Music movement, there’s still a lot of life left in the genre. And Ezra on their debut album have already shown themselves to be in the vanguard.

(c) Copyright 2024 George D. Graham. All rights reserved.
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