Saturday, March 12, 2011

“Alison Brown Quartet: Live at Blair - With Joe Craven” DVD (Compass)

Alison Brown has been at the forefront of the contemporary 5-string banjo movement for some 20+ years now, beginning with her tenure with Alison Krauss and Union Station. During that time, Brown has recorded a number of CD’s, first for Vanguard, then (since 1998) her own Compass Records banner. But not only is Brown one of Compass’ brightest lights, she also runs the label with husband and bass player Garry West. Under their enlightened guidance, Compass has emerged as a major player in the worlds of contemporary acoustic music, Americana, bluegrass, and Celtic music. Fittingly enough, all those genres figure prominently into music of the Alison Brown Quartet on the “Live At Blair” DVD.

For those who may be unfamiliar with her work, Alison Brown belongs to the same general category - which has never really been given a satisfactory name, as if that matters - of contemporary acoustic instrumental music, which encompasses such diverse artists as Bela Fleck, David Grisman, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Mark O’Connor, et. al. Her music incorporates elements of bluegrass, jazz, New Age, classical music, Celtic and other World Music elements, in varying amounts which keep it from being predictable or even readily classifiable. Brown’s 5-string work is rooted in the Bill Keith chromatic style, but shows familiarity with Scruggs style on occasion. The banjo is by nature a pretty staccato instrument, but her playing always seems to sound smoothly rounded and highly imaginative. The same may be said of featured guest artist Joe Craven (best known for his work with Grisman) on fiddle and mandolin and Brown’s well-polished rhythm section. When everything is going right - as it is through the great bulk of this DVD concert - Brown’s banjo sparkles, Craven’s fiddle glides, John R. Burr’s piano soars and swoops, drummer Larry Atamanuik propels, and Garry West’s bass anchors everything. They all have their own ideas, yet everyone does their part to enhance and complement what the others.

Most of the material consists of intelligently conceived original tunes, including “The Magnificent Seven”, which is neither the epic Elmer Bernstein Western movie theme turned cigarette commercial nor the Clash song. It’s refreshing to hear Brown switch to guitar (and Craven to mandolin) on “Deep Gap”, a tribute to the Godfather of this entire genre of acoustic instrumentalism, Doc Watson.

As for the non-originals,Craven (on mandolin and auxiliary percussion) gets a workout on a lesser-known Django Reinhardt piece from 1939, “Hungaria”, which also features a drum solo by Atamanuik. There is also a traditional Scottish tune or two in the lengthy, set-closing medley with the unlikely title “(I’m Naked and I’m) Goin’ To Glasgow”. Brown is the first banjoist I’ve heard who has successfully translated the triplet ornamentation of Irish tenor banjo playing to the 5-string instrument, then extends it further. The medley also includes Burr’s most intense solo of the disc, in a modern gospel-tinged jazz vein. It probably shouldn’t be expected to work in a Celtic medley, yet it does. By the time Craven brings the hour-long concert to its climax by beating on Brown’s banjo like a conga drum, as she continues to play without missing a beat, one is no longer surprised by anything one might hear from these skilled musicians.

Brown does not have the most effusive stage personality, if that sort of thing is important to you. But Craven has a devilish little grin which wins over the viewer. No matter, the appreciative audience is not necessarily there to see “a show” or to be bowled over by personalities, but to hear well-considered original music skillfully played, and that’s exactly what they get for most of the disc. The two attempts at adding humor and variety to the proceedings no doubt worked better in the auditorium than they do for repeated home viewing. Brown narrates the historical/mythological background behind her composition “The Wonderful Sea Voyage (Of Holy St. Brendan)”, while Craven (occasionally abetted by West) accompanies with vocal sound effects, shouts, and bits of choreography. I was not at all surprised to learn that Craven has a successful side career as a children’s entertainer and workshop leader. The other “interruption” (my choice of word; others may well disagree) to the concert is the performance by Brown and West’s 6-year-old daughter Hannah, singing a couple old vaudeville standards. Very cute, even delightful - once. But I for one would opt to skip to the next chapter in subsequent viewings.

Nevertheless, I think anyone with an interest in the current state of the banjo and the development of contemporary acoustic music will more than get their money’s worth here, especially at the budget-conscious list price of $11.99. (I’ve seen it advertised online for even less.) Picture and audio quality are both absolutely gorgeous. The sole bonus feature is short text bios of the musicians.

Get this one.

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