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Listening Report: John Bullard Plays 24 Preludes for Solo Banjo, Vol. 1

Mark Smotroff likes his banjos soft ‘n round as well as angular…

A modern classical-themed work written for solo Banjo is a happy surprise in these high tech 21st Century times.  It is an extra pleasant discovery when it sounds as good as as the new release John Bullard Plays 24 Preludes for Solo Banjo, Vol. 1That enjoyability factor ultimately comes down to a very special combination of a dedicated performer / producer as well as a thoughtful composer of these new works. 

I’ll get to the music in a moment but first I will discuss the overall sound of John Bullard Plays 24 Preludes for Solo Banjo, Vol. 1 (this is is still Audiophile Review, after all). The recording sounds strikingly rich and warm even just on a CD, countering common preconceptions of what a Banjo “should” sound like.  

Many of us — dare I say, “most” — have a mental picture of the sound of a Banjo from legendary old recordings from the Bluegrass universe, such as Eric Weissberg’s classic “Dueling Banjos” and “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” by Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. If you are of a certain age or watch old TV re-runs, you may have a perpetual hoedown earworm of the old Beverly Hillbillies theme running in the back of your brain.

Current day progressive Jazz musician Béla Fleck certainly escalated vistas for the Banjo with his group the Flecktones as well as his work in more traditional realms (including modern Bluegrass flavored musics). 

These new compositions on John Bullard Plays 24 Preludes for Solo Banjo, Vol. 1 were written for the artist. His approach to performing them feels timeless and refreshingly modern.  From his website we learn a bit more of the intent behind them from composer Adam Larrabee:

“24 Preludes for Solo Banjo, celebrates the long-standing tradition of classical musicians writing pieces in all major and minor keys to showcase an instrument’s versatility and capability in all keys as well as the breadth of tonal palette and timbres each various key has to offer. JS Bach, Chopin, Shostakovich and many others have written 24 preludes in this tradition…

“These solo banjo preludes are written in a mostly early 20th-century, at times almost neo-classical style. I have also tried to make each prelude feature a different form, performance technique, timbre, or rhythmic style. 

There is an all-pizzicato or muted piece, one featuring natural harmonics or “chimes”, a Bulgarian Ratchenitsa, a Basque zortico, a passacaglia, a jazz “stride piano” style cakewalk, a theme and variations, a Brazilian choro in the style of the great Villa-Lobos, and Russian march ala Prokofiev. It has been a wonderful experience to feature the banjo in these many diverse styles and settings. I hope that more composers continue to write for the banjo in this way to create a new 21st century repertoire for this beautifully unique and versatile instrument!”

There are several reasons why audiophiles in particular might want to listen to this album. John Bullard Plays 24 Preludes for Solo Banjo, Vol. 1 is a beautiful recording crafted in a warmly ambient manner in a Virginia church. Kudos go out to award winning producer David Travers-Smith for capturing a nice sense of the rich hushed space in which Mr. Bullard is performing while also maintaining a clear sense of instrumental detail. 

I also noticed something else that seemed to be happening with the artist’s physical performance technique which impacts the sound created on this album. 

Looking closely at one of his promotional videos I saw that his finger picks were in some ways a little unusual (note: I play Guitar and a dabble a little on my Banjo, so I notice and hear things like this). 

I reached out to Mr. Bullard (through his publicist) who confirmed that indeed much love and care was put into this recording to deliver a finely curated sound far from what most people would expect from a Banjo.

For example, in the video you can see that his thumb pick has a plastic “blade” on it and he wears brass picks on his other fingers. These combine with other elements — such as looser tension on the Banjo head — to deliver a richer warmer tone. 

Mr. Bullard confirmed that he is approaching his attack on the Banjo’s strings with an intentionally more delicate technique which aims to coax out more warmth from the instrument. He said that he often places his picking hand closer to the neck for a deeper, warmer tone.  He also says that his Banjo neck is made of Mahogany wood which delivers a darker sound than Maple. He also uses a fairly thick, meticulously selected “bridge” (Maple with Ebony on top) which also impacts the the sound of the strings when strummed or plucked. 

This all helps to mitigate the brittle bright Bluegrass-y feel most of us identify with the Banjo.  Some of you may know this but the Banjo has quite a history even beyond so-called Hillbilly music. In the early 1900s, Banjo was a popular rhythm component in New Orleans Jazz bands, well before electronic amplification was possible. It could deliver a loud percussive chordal sound which could cut through the clutter of the other brass instruments and drums. Bright and loud was desirous then.

On John Bullard Plays 24 Preludes for Solo Banjo, Vol. 1 it is a whole different listening experience, with the instrument sounding decidedly round and inviting, soothing even. 

These new compositions are very tuneful. I love the melodies woven throughout “Prelude No. 8, E Flat minor” (which is ironically enough subtitled “‘80s Rock Groove”). The harmonics-driven “No. 4 in B Minor, Dialogue” is quite unusual and at times haunting. “No. 12 in G Minor, Waltz” sounds in some ways the most traditional but again the composer’s attention to melody makes it a lovely way to wind down the album. 

John Bullard on Tidal

John Bullard Plays 24 Preludes for Solo Banjo, Vol. 1 is available on CD (click on the title to jump to Amazon where you can order it). The album is also streaming in 16-bit, 44.1 kHz fidelity on Qobuz (click here) and Tidal (click here). You can also find it in AAC format on Apple Music (click here).

John Bullard on Qobuz

If you’re seeking some sonic solace to these troubled times we are living through, John Bullard Plays 24 Preludes for Solo Banjo, Vol. 1 might be just the musical remedy. 

If you enjoy this music, be sure to explore Mr. Bullard’s back catalog of many other classical oriented Banjo recordings. I know I plan to explore more of his albums in the near future. 

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