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Alison Brown

The Company You Keep

(Compass; US: 7 Apr 2009; UK: 6 Apr 2009)

Acoustic instrumental delight

Five-string banjo player Alison Brown employs a distinctive style on her instrument. Although she can fast pick and strum like the best of pluckers when she needs to her, she prefers to play at a more moderate pace. The secret to her music lies in her allegiance to the melody. She lets the song speak, albeit in a fresh voice due to her unusual lead instrument. Brown’s also not averse to changing the time signatures. Think of her as the bluegrass equivalent of jazz guitarists such as Wes Montgomery and Joe Pass. Like these artists, she has a lyrical style and the deftness to decorate the music while always being true to the basic structure of the song.


The fact that she wrote the bulk of the material on her most recent album, The Company You Keep contributes to the fact that she’s comfortable with the melodies. She constructs recognizable tunes that capture and seduce the listener with broad hooks and catchy rhythms. The tunes might offer different stylistic flourishes, including Celtic and Caribbean touches, but she and her band (which includes her husband bassist Garry West, drummer Larry Atamanuik, Brown, pianist John R. Burr, and frequently fiddler and mandolinist, Joe Craven) make them their own through their virtuoso performances.


Consider the shifting pace of the rollicking “The Road West”, a tune by Irish pianist/accordionist Martin O’Connor Brown transcribed for her own outfit. The song begins with the tempo of a freight train slowly picking up speed up hill before hitting that downward slide. Brown’s fingers nimbly move across the strings in a seemingly effortless fashion, while her side musicians launch into solo expeditions of their own. The effect aurally mimics that of looking out the windows on a scenic excursion. “Just look, isn’t that a…,” you say before turning a corner and losing the image.


Or there’s the slow, self-penned “Drawing Down the Moon”. The silence between the notes allows the band to find the most beautiful tones of their instruments and let them ring. There’s something heartbreaking and romantic about the way in which the changes in pitch break against each other. The effect is poetic and inspired even though no words are employed when Craven’s fiddle encounters Brown’s banjo and they play the same melody together at the same pace.


Brown says the title of her album comes from Don Quixote, where Miguel de Cervantes says: “Tell me the company you keep and I’ll tell you what you are.” She originally meant this in tribute to her band members with whom she’s played for more than 15 years. They do sound tight. One player is always ready to pick up where the other person has left off, just like lovers and old friends who finish each other’s sentences.


But as co-owner and founder of Compass Records, Brown later realized the title had another meaning as well. She literally helps keep the company together through her commercial acumen. Brown has a business degree from Harvard University.


She shouldn’t worry about the Freudian implications. While Brown might own the company, the music on the album clearly shows the most important meaning of the title relates to the sounds on the discs she releases. Brown and her band provide welcome accompaniment for those in search of acoustic, instrumental delights.

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Steven Horowitz has a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Iowa, where he continues to teach a three-credit online course on "Rock and Roll in America". He has written for many different popular and academic publications including American Music, Paste and the Icon. Horowitz is a firm believer in Paul Goodman's neofunctional perspective on culture and that Sam Cooke was right, a change is gonna come.


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Alison Brown - Live in Schenectady, NY
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10 May 2005
This experiment in fusing bluegrass with jazz is the exception -- it really works. When even the dreaded heavy-hitter guest vocalists don't wreck things, you know you're onto something special. Alison Brown, banjo at the ready, is coming to get you.
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