The Graham Album Review #1794
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Fleck & Abigail Washburn
by George Graham
(Rounder Records As broadcast on WVIA-FM 11/12/2014)
It used to be that the banjo was an instrument with very limited scope, used for bluegrass and early jazz, and that was about it, among Western contemporary music. These days, mention the banjo, and many astute music fans think of all kinds of eclectic applications for the instrument. While there have been been a number of banjo eclecticists, like Tony Trischka and Bill Keith, the main name that has become indelibly associated with taking the banjo to new realms is Béla Fleck. From being a bluegrass banjo prodigy in his teens, to his work with New Grass Revival, the founding of the highly distinctive and long-running fusion band the Flecktones, to his work doing classical music, playing jazz with Chick Corea and doing field recordings of folk musicians in Africa, Fleck has become one of the most creative musicians on the scene, regardless of instrument. He just happens to play a banjo. One can be reasonably assured that each time around, Fleck will come up with something that defies expectations for the instrument.
His latest project is a two-banjo duet recording. Fleck has done that before, but this one is particularly interesting, as might be expected, in a number of ways. His banjo partner is Abigail Washburn, who happens to be his wife, and instead of being two banjos and a band, it's just the two banjos with Ms. Washburn's vocals. The album is called, helpfully enough, Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn.
One's immediate reaction to the idea of just two banjos for a whole album, would naturally be some skepticism -- how could a pair of banjos appeal to anyone besides die-hard banjo fans, but the eclecticism of Fleck and Washburn is apparent from the start. The material consists largely of old folk songs, most of which have been rearranged in very distinctive ways, and sometimes woven in with other folk songs. Most of the material has a kind of plaintive, lamenting sound in minor keys, but that is in keeping with a lot of Appalachian folk music, and there are times when one can hear some of Fleck's experience collaborating with African musicians working its way into the music. According to the liner notes, seven different banjos were used by the two players, ranging from a small ukulele sized banjo to larger cello-type banjos. There was also some fretless banjo to provide an odd bluesy sound. The album, naturally, has a kind of intimate quality with just the two players. Fleck, who rarely sings, does some background vocals on one tune, but it's mostly just Ms. Washburn singing with the banjos. Fleck often plays a larger baritone banjo that essentially provides an approximation of a bass.
In addition to the folk songs in their album, there are a couple of originals, a Tin Pan Alley-era song, an obscure spiritual and an adaptation of a classical piece by Fleck's namesake Béla Bartok, after whom Fleck was named. It really manages to hold your interest.
Opening is an interesting reinvention of the very old folk song that millions of kids grew up on, (I've Been Working on the) Railroad), with which they blend bits of other folk songs. The couple plays it in a minor key turns it into a kind of spooky lament. The result is quite intriguing. <<>>
One of the original songs is by Ms Washburn and it's called Ride To You about going to see a dying friend. It's especially nice both musically and lyrically. <<>>
A song by Fleck is another excellent piece of writing. What'cha Gonna Do. It was inspired by the disastrous tsunami that hit southeast Asia in 2004. The Flecktones had previously played a concert in Banda Aceh, the city that was at the epicenter. It considers the consequences of global warming and a rise in sea level. <<>>
Little Birdie is a tune co-written by Mr. and Mrs. Fleck that has the sound of an old Appalachian lament. Ms. Washburn plays a fretless banjo to give the note-bending effect. <<>>
While much of the album has a kind of dark, plaintive quality to the music, a composition by Béla Fleck called New South Africa has a more joyous sound. It was inspired by a trip by the Flecktones to South Africa in 1995, shortly after Nelson Mandela had become president there. <<>>
The brooding quality of the album returns on their version of the traditional song Pretty Polly, which is a kind of lament to begin with. <<>>
The classical track by Bela Bartok is actually a mixture of two short pieces. Fleck calls it For Children. It has the formal sound of a classical work, and the treatment on the banjos does make for an interesting texture. <<>>
The CD ends with piece based on an old song from 1930, Bye Bye Baby Blues. They borrow the chorus, but write their own sections with lyrics that are a bit more relevant to contemporary times. <<>>
Béla Fleck has become synonymous with eclectic banjo, and his new joint album with his wife fellow banjoist Abigail Washburn has further burnished that reputation. With just two banjos, though of seven different kinds, they have made a recording that is both charming and fascinating, for the way they alter folk songs, and then bring in other influences. After a while, you can easily forget that this is just two banjos, with the way they so effectively orchestrate them. Ms. Washburn is an appealing and respectable vocalist, often giving just the right kind of rustic feel, and the variety of influences on the album makes it all the more impressive.
Our grade for sound quality is close to an "A." The CD has good clarity, with everything in the right place in the mix and with a fairly decent dynamic range. The recording is not overly compressed to make it artificially louder as so many album are.
Béla Fleck has recorded prolifically, with scores of albums under his own name and collaborating with others. This CD, done with his wife Abigail Washburn is probably the most personal record Fleck has made. They include a photo and dedication to their baby son Juno, who is shown with a banjo, and they include his a bit of his babbling on one track. The intimate setting is very much in evidence. One wonders what it is like in a family of two banjo players married to each other. Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn, the album, provides an enjoyable hint. It makes for great listening, even for those who might not be ardent banjo fans.
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