It’s the time of year for saving money!
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
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
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
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
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.