Acoustic jazz is one of those "difficult' musical categories that doesn't get much attention. Most jazz fans won't take anything that lacks a horn seriously, while folkies are intimidated by music where they can't hum along after 10 seconds. Ironically, if they give it a chance, both groups will enjoy Alison Brown's new disk, Replay. Acoustic jazz at its best is downright addictive.
Alison Brown is known for her banjo mastery. She's been named banjo player of the year by no less than the International Bluegrass Association. She also received a Grammy in 2001 for her Fair Weather CD. On Replay she revisits tunes she's recorded earlier in her career. Joined by John R. Barr on piano, Kendrick Freeman on drums, and Compass Records co-founder Gary West on bass, Brown delivers new takes on fifteen previously recorded tunes. The entire session was done in only two days. Instead of the usual studio method where each person lays down their tracks separately, on Replay everyone played at the same time, as they would in concert. The result is much closer to a live performance than a studio recording. Much of its spontaneity is probably because these sessions were originally never intended for a commercial CD, but merely to document the band. I'm just glad they kept their tape machines running.
From the beginning song "Red Balloon" to the final strains of "The Promise of Spring" Replay is both breezy and lyrical without being flaccid or saccharine. Even potentially campy material like the "Spiderman Theme" becomes up-tempo bop-flavored jazz in the hands of the ABQ. Not only is Brown's banjo playing technically brilliant, but at times very un-banjo-like. Instead of familiar banjo rolls, Brown delivers strong melodic lines that are about linear progressions rather than picking patterns. On "The Inspector" Browns lays down her banjo in favor of an acoustic guitar. Her guitar playing is so good that on first listen I looked through the album notes to see who the guest guitar player was. Not only are her melody lines inventive, but her guitar's tone and attack are impeccable.
Recorded by Dave Sinko at the Sound Emporium and Flying Lady Studio in Nashville, TN, the sound here is as fresh as the musicianship. The entire CD has a vibrancy combined with a relaxed natural timbre that perfectly fits the music. Not only can you hear the subtle nuances of each instrument, but the ensemble blends into a cohesive musically alive entity. In two words "Nice sound."
If you've never heard any Alison Brown, Replay is a fine place to begin your musical relationship. Longtime fans will appreciate how her quartet has revised and refined old favorites. Replay is the sort of disk that will see many replays on your CD player.
If you listen to vintage Bill Monroe recordings and then to current bluegrass from the likes of Allison Krauss, it's hard to see how we got from there to here. But once you listen to the Country Gentlemen you can see how the musical dots connect. The Country Gentlemen were one of the first bands to combine the drive of Bill Monroe with modern pop finesse. On The Complete Vanguard Recordings we have an opportunity to discover their influential style while reveling in the freshness of their music.
Fronted by Charlie Waller on guitar and lead vocals, the Country Gentlemen's line-up included a number of musicians who've gone on to have important careers on their own. Mandolinist Doyle Lawson founded the band Quicksilver, which continues the Country Gentlemen's style of tight harmonic bluegrass. After Country Gentleman Ricky Skaggs joined Emmylou Harris' Hot Band, then his own solo career catapulted him to the top of the country charts. Jerry Douglas had his first steady gig with the Country Gentleman before he evolved into the most in-demand dobro player in the world. Even at the beginnings of their careers, these players were superlative pickers. Here's the proof.
The Complete Vanguard Recordings includes all the material from The Country Gentlemen (1973) and Remembrances (1974). Their song selection was eclectic and urbane. Tunes by bluegrass traditionalists Bill Monroe and John Duffy joined "contemporary" material by Paul Simon, Kris Kristofferson, John Prine, Steve Goodman, and John Loudermilk. Tight, sophisticated vocal harmonies were a fundamental element in their style. They nailed their three-part harmonies on the chorus of "One Morning in May." In the Country Gentlemen's hands even pop material, such as "The Leaves that Are Green" by Paul Simon, sounds like a bluegrass standard.
David Glasser at Airshow Mastering transferred the original analog recordings into 24-bit 88.2 KHz digital format where they were tweaked with Sonic Solutions software. The result is a clean yet warm sound. Producer Fred Jasper included the original album notes from the 1973 release along with his own introduction. While the packaging isn't fancy, it is complete. I especially like the cover shot of the band wearing denim pant-suits.