Banjoist Jake Schepps returns with a tribute of sorts to one of the greatest composers — living or dead — Béla Bartók. One might legitimately ask what banjo and Bartók have in common and the answer is simple: the Hungarian master was fascinated with folk music. He was, in fact, one of the earliest ethnomusicologists. Thus, it makes perfect sense that Schepps would choose to record these 19 pieces in a setting that some ears might catalog as uniquely American.
Opening with the surefire sure-footedness of “An Evening in the Village (Hungarian Sketches)”, and closing over 40 minutes later with “Stick Game (#1 Romanian Folk Dances)”, Schepps, along with violinist Ryan Drickey, guitarist Ross Martin, bassist Eric Thorin, cellist Ben Sollee and mandolin player Matt Flinner, creates a masterful musical exhibit that bridges the New and Old Worlds as well as new and old music.
That “Stick Game”, “Mikrokosmos #78 (#35:44 Violin Duos)”, and “Melody (Hungarian Sketches)” sound as though they were created to be played around a campfire has as much to do with their origins as with the keen interpretation that Schepps and his companions offer here. It’s hard to summon words that accurately describe the sheer fluidity and grace of Martin’s guitar playing throughout or that accurately capture the full emotional impact of the group’s arrangement of the traditional piece “Cousin Sally Brown”, a tune that does not stand out from the others here, despite its heritage, but instead offers a greater sense of uniformity.
There’s an uncommon tenderness to “Stars, Stars Brightly Shine (#31: For Children: Hungarian Folk Tunes)” and “Romance I: I Know a Little Forest (#34: For Children: Slovakian Folk Songs)” as you listen you hear these men playing to each other’s strengths and playing the composition as opposed to merely playing their instruments. While other interpreters might have worked too hard to place a contemporary spin on these pieces, Schepps sees no reason to do so and for good reason — the pieces he has chosen are timeless and thus need no updating.
Although Schepps has added a few embellishments to the tracks — adding chords here and there that might more easily call to mind bluegrass — there’s nothing that interrupts the mood or original intentions of the compositions. In many ways, you get the feeling that, were Bartók alive to hear what has been done here he would be more than pleased.
So, a final and extended kudos to this ensemble for creating something that may just introduce lovers of Americana to Bartók and find lovers of Bartók delving a little more deeply into the realms of bluegrass and other American music. It’s refreshing to hear a recording that’s as gorgeously understated as this, one that is honest, heartfelt and uncommonly intelligent. There is no reason to believe that this is the last we’ll hear from Schepps in this vein and that’s a welcome idea — someone who can teach us to listen to old music with new ears, and with a glorious smile on our faces.