The recent boom in both traditional bluegrass recordings and more eclectic “newgrass” bands is hard to explain. The O Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack put the high, lonesome sound of Ralph Stanley into a bunch of ears, sure, but Alison Krauss, Dave Grisman, and Tim O’Brien didn’t seem to need the Coen Brothers to help them sell records. Neither is it likely the rise of Garth Brooks and Nashville-style “Red America”. The roots music or “Americana” styles tend to be low-sheen material — more Birkenstocks than cowboy hats.
Could it be that the music stands on its own merits and is just plain-old superb?
Stolen Moments is the latest from banjo wizard Alison Brown, and it sits squarely in the superb column. Brown fronts a working quartet — banjo, piano, bass, and drums — that betrays her long-standing interest in pushing the banjo toward jazz. But this new record, packed from carpet to ceiling with bluegrass all-stars and special guests, is a seamless blending of newgrass, bluegrass, Celtic and pop styles. And yes, I know that last sentence is stone ridiculous and sounds like it comes out of the mouth of an unimaginative marketing hack, but it happens to be — yikes! — true.
Look, most records to claim to blend so many genres are poo, and I know that. They pay lip service to jazz with a couple bluesy throwaway tracks, and they allegedly channel funk because the bass player politely pops for one part of a single song. Alison Brown is a different beast entirely. Her banjo playing is lickety-fast and slippery-smooth, and her regular pianist (John Burr) has a legitimate McCoy Tyner sense of harmony and chord voicing. As a result, each of her tunes fuses the natural folk sound of her instrument into a hipper-than-anyone-expects jazz setting. On Stolen Moments (also the name of a legendary jazz album from 1959 by Oliver Nelson, by the way), Brown juices her band’s bluegrass sound with heavyweights like Stuart Duncan (fiddle), Sam Bush, and Mike Marshall (mandolin). And while they tackle both tasty bluegrass tunes (both original and classic) and a Celtic handful, this is not merely a “back to my roots” exercise.
On three wildly different tracks, Brown brings in premier vocalists, each of whom manages to meet the album’s conception rather than stick out like an sore ego. Amy Ray and Emily Sager (The Indigo Girls) run away with Paul Simon’s “Homeward Bound”, making it sound like the old folk song it never was in the 1960s. Beth Neilson Chapman — a pretty good songwriter in her own right but possessing one of the great ethereal voices on this particular tectonic plate — makes quick work of “Angel” by (?!) Jimi Hendrix. (Listen closely and try to imagine Hendrix-The-Strat-King digging Alison’s banjo). Then Mary Chapin Carpenter (performing anonymously as one of the “Boomchicks”) makes you remember why you liked that voice so much on “Prayer Wheel”. In addition, fiddler and label-mate Andrea Zonn makes for the pretty singing on a track.
The point of comparison for this record is another pair of discs that I can’t help pushing like they were diet pizza: Shifting Sands of Time and This Train by the group Wayfaring Strangers. The Wayfaring Strangers, organized by the no-genre-can-hold-me violinist Matt Glaser, are sonic alchemists, fusing bluegrass, jazz and even klezmer in an authentic alloy of musical joy. Stolen Moments comes inches from that kind of magic and, despite being musically bold in many ways, also is the kind of music you can play for your mom or your house guests without getting funny looks.
A word about Alison Brown herself: Her intricate playing underpins every song on Stolen Moments without ever leaping forward like that horrible girl in your fourth grade class who was so good at spelling. Her playing, oddly enough, seems mellow and fleet rather than twangy and percussive. That said, she seems distinct from Bela Fleck, whose “jazz banjo” style seems to leave bluegrass behind entirely. Brown’s picking is even and harmonically unusual, and she exploits this strength at every turn, never galloping off like a drummer with some strings. If Bill Evans had played the banjo, maybe, as horribly goofy as that sounds.
Aside from the music itself (and there’s no need to focus on anything but the music) Alison Brown is one of those talents who just sends you into a tailspin of self-loathing. She went to Harvard, then she picked up a quick MBA and reeled in the cash as an investment banker for a while; that is until Alison Krauss recruited her for the Union Station band. Oh, and the album cover seems to show a sharply intense woman with blond hair and a mysterious smile. And she’s also won a Grammy.
What did you do recently?
But don’t feel bad. Alison Brown wants you. She’s looking for real music fans for some real music that knows few boundaries. She’s saddled up and heading for your ears.
Alison Brown is coming to get you, music fans. She’s got Paul Simon, Sam Bush and Jimi Hendrix in her posse, and she isn’t planning on stopping at nightfall. I know, I know — these guest star-laden experiments in genre-blending are rarely a good idea. But Alison Brown is packing some serious banjo, and she knows how to use it. Cool your heels and let her overtake you. Why resist the pleasure?