Alison Brown - Song of the Banjo
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Song of the Banjo (Compass, 2015)

Alison Brown

Reviewed by Sam Gazdziak

The banjo probably wins the award for most unappreciated musical instrument. When used in mainstream country today, it's generally within the first 20 seconds of a song before it's quickly drowned out by electric guitar and drums. Really though, it's a beautiful instrument with a long and noble history. In the hands of a master musician like Alison Brown, it shines as a lead instrument in any number of musical styles.

Brown's "Song of the Banjo" features a fair share of bluegrass-ish tunes, naturally, but jazz, Americana, Celtic and even a classical waltz are included. Anyone who thinks that a banjo has to sound harsh and twangy may find their preconceptions shattered by Brown's playing on the instrumental "Airish" or "Musette for the Last Fret." The banjo blends in so well with the ace musicians recruited for this project (including ukulele whiz Jake Shimabukuro, fiddler Stuart Duncan and Dobro player Rob Ickes) that it's not really a "banjo album." It's an excellent, mostly instrumental, album that happens to feature a banjo.

A few vocalists share the spotlight. The Indigo Girls deliver a pretty cover of Michael Martin Murphey's "Carolina in the Pines," and Colin Hay sings the Burt Bacharach-written "I'll Never Fall in Love Again" - an odd choice but one that works. "Time After Time" is redone as an instrumental, and while it succeeds, it would have been nice to hear Cyndi Lauper's beautiful lyrics, too.

Brown has never been afraid to genre-bend, often within the realm of a single song. The title track starts off with a fiddle, but the addition of drums and piano put the song somewhere between newgrass and jazz. "Feels So Good," originally a hit for Chuck Mangione, veers a little too close to elevator music at the onset before Brown and Shimabukuro add lively licks.

One album may not be enough to change the public's opinion of the banjo, but "Song of the Banjo" should win over some hearts and minds.

CDs by Alison Brown

Song of the Banjo, 2015 Live at Blair (CD/DVD), 2010 The Company You Keep, 2009 Evergreen, 2008 Stolen Moments, 2005

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