Music News & Reviews

From solo to symphony: three views of the banjo

Here are engaging new works from three generational pioneers of the banjo, each exhibiting their often-maligned and stereotyped instrument in a trio of radically different settings. Bela Fleck’s “The Juno Concerto” unleashes it with a full symphony, Danny Barnes’ “Stove Up” opts for a traditional bluegrass combo environment, and Noam Pikelny’s “Universal Favorite” goes it completely alone. All are strikingly original albums that, because of the dramatic contrasts in the music they promote, unlock seemingly boundless possibilities for an instrumental voice viewed by some people as merely a rudimentary accent of the rural South and Appalachia.

Fleck is an old hand at this type of myth-busting. Even so, “The Juno Concerto” is quite a feat. It’s hardly his first foray into classical music, but this collaboration with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, conducted by José Luis Gomez, is a rich and astonishing work, from the instant the banjo makes its entrance during “Movement 1” amid contained orchestral luster to the way the instrument leads the full symphonic charge of “Movement 3,” while retaining a sound in Fleck’s impossibly nimble runs that is alternately commanding and giddy.

The recording is fleshed out by two equally dynamic pieces with the contemporary chamber ensemble Brooklyn Rider, the loose and lively “Griff” (titled, in true Fleck fashion, because it’s constructed around a G riff) and a starker, stately “Quintet for Banjo and Strings,” co-written with longtime pal Edgar Meyer in 1984, making it Fleck’s first classical work.

Danny Barnes is probably the least known of these three titans, but he has independently become one of the great innovators of banjo music over the past two decades, taking it into modern realms of jazz and electronica and the most ancient corners of traditional music and pre-bluegrass country.

The fact that “Stove Up” is a straight-up, scholarly bluegrass session might not seem a revelation unless you know how seldom Barnes has traveled this path on record in the past. But once you hear him and a pack of bluegrass pros (who include past and present members of the Del McCoury Band) make the Rolling Stones “Factory Girl” sound like Flatt & Scruggs while making the Scruggs staple “Flint Hill Special” sound both reverential and original, you might understand the depth of Barnes’ scholarly bluegrass insight.

Punch Brother Pikelny’s “Universal Favorite” is a poker-faced triumph, an unaccompanied set of banjo pieces that regularly challenge Fleck’s warp-speed tenacity, as on “Waveland.” The album is curiously colored by Pikelny’s baritone singing, which gives these tunes a stoic commoner’s touch. But the agility and daring of the musicianship here makes Pikelny a storied successor to the trails that Fleck and Barnes blazed ahead of him.

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