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Nick Hornbuckle- Twelve By Two (Plus or Minus One) Equals Outstanding

Donald Teplyske  |  November 10, 2014

Nick Hornbuckle "12X2(+/-1)" Corvus Bay

And the award for worst album title of the year goes to...

That was my first reaction when this stunning collection of banjo and string music slipped out of its bubble wrap envelope. Being rather linear, I thought, 'Just call it "25" or "23"...don't throw introductory algebra into the mix.'

Then I listened. And learned.

I've been familiar with Nick Hornbuckle for almost as long as he has played banjo with John Reischman & the Jaybirds. I've interviewed him. I've shared beverages and meals with him. I've written about his performances. I've hired him as a member of the Jaybirds, whose sets I've experienced far too many times to count.

Nick Hornbuckle plays banjo in a two finger-thumb and index-style that is quite unlike anyone else's I can recollect. And that is where the album may get its name- 12 tunes X two fingers...except, sometimes there is also two (or three) musicians, or two banjos...hence, the +/- part of the title.

When Hornbuckle plays banjo, whether live, or on any one of the half-dozen and more Jaybirds and Jaybirds-related albums on which he has played, it doesn't noticeably sound-at least, to my untrained ears-different from those banjo players who play in the more conventional, three-finger bluegrass banjo style. Cleaner maybe, less cluttered perhaps. But, I hear rolls, fills, backing, and leads that are as tasteful, soulful, and jaw-droppingly impressive as I do whenever I listen to more traditional bluegrass 5-string wizards.

Hornbuckle, like his Jaybird compatriots, is not nearly as linear as I am. Their approach to bluegrass has consistently been expansive-delving deep into its old-time, Celtic, and folk foundations, they mine the traditions of bluegrass while leading it forward for contemporary audiences to appreciate.

Hornbuckle's solo debut takes a similar tact, with an emphasis on the interplay of banjo and an accompanying stringed companion-fiddle, mandolin, mandola, cello, bass, and banjo played in the clawhammer style. In a couple places, Hornbuckle has his hands fully occupied, playing piano as well as banjo.

Some may prejudge the album to be a bit 'high concept' for a bluegrass banjo player to attempt. They would be wrong. There is nothing about this 35-minute recording to suggests that it misses its mark in attempting to create a juxtaposed image of how the 5-string can be used to artfully craft a modern interpretation of old-time music. Much like Noam Pikelny's "Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe" of last year, "12X2(+/-1)" bridges generations of banjo influence into a cohesive, amiable artistic creation.

It just sounds so darned good.

"Sail Away Ladies," featuring the dynamic duo of Emma Beaton (cello) and Miriam Sonstenes (fiddle), is one of the album's immediate highpoints. The cello captures the depth this tune possess, while the fiddle communicates its more high-spirited aspect. All through, Hornbuckle's right hand provides the melody that envelops the wistful atmosphere created. Elsewhere, another old fiddle tune "Julianne Johnson" is performed with Hornbuckle joined by clawhammer-style player Shanti Bremer; this rendition has just the right amount of 'pop' to stand out in a favourable manner.

"Lost Girl" is given a beautiful arrangement, with deep brooding bass notes from Marisha Devoin. More familiar tunes are also delightfully rendered, among them "Virginia Reel," "Too Young To Marry," and "Cumberland Gap," the last of which features Reischman. The Jaybirds' leader is also featured on "Yell in the Shoats" and "Ninety Degrees;" his and Hornbuckle's chemistry is obvious. The old Scottish tune "Cold Frosty Morning" closes the album, and features Hornbuckle doing double duty on banjo and piano bringing the disc to a rather pensive conclusion.

The album jumps around a bit, providing a pleasing listening experience, evidence that Hornbuckle considered the flow of tunes when sequencing the disc. The album packaging is also nice, containing an abundance of information within tight quarters while considering the aesthetics of appealing layout.

Nick Hornbuckle is one of the more unassuming musicians you are likely to encounter. His non-musical personality is only gradually exposed, and with the release of "12X2(+/-1)" here is hoping more folks stop by the band table and take the time to get to know this extremely talented and still under-rated bluegrass banjo player.

©Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher •
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