Grammy-Winner Alison Brown Uncovers The Banjo’s Eclectic, Multi-Genre Voice With 'On Banjo' Album
Alison Brown, Banjo Hall of Fame member and one of the world’s foremost banjo players, releases her new album, On Banjo (Compass Records).
The collection is both innovative and daring, with Brown venturing beyond her bluegrass roots to offer a unique take on the banjo through forays into Brazilian choro, swing era jazz, bossa nova and more. It’s a broad palette for an instrument associated most often with “pickin’ and grinnin’”, but Brown is more than up to the task. She is a master of the banjo and a musical pioneer, as well as a trailblazer for women on the instrument.
Brown comments: “One of my great passions is pushing the envelope for the banjo and exploring new musical possibilities. Because the instrument is so predominant in bluegrass, most people don’t realize that, in addition to its African origins, it has had a long history in other genres of music — from the classic banjo repertoire of the late 19th century, to the birth of jazz in the early 20th century. I like to try to pull some of those influences forward into a modern acoustic band setting, hopefully shining a light on the lyrical side of the banjo and drawing new fans to this endlessly fascinating instrument in the process.”
Brown is respected by the long list of tastemaker vocalists with whom she has collaborated, including Alison Krauss, Keb’ Mo’, Colin Hay, Indigo Girls, and many others. On her new record, she turns her focus to a set of primarily original instrumental compositions and, in addition to featuring her band (pianist Chris Walters, flutist John Ragusa, drummer Jordan Perlson, and bassist/co-producer Garry West) she welcomes a cast of stellar guests, including some of her favorite fellow female virtuosos: mandolinist Sierra Hull, jazz clarinetist Anat Cohen, and GRAMMY-winning classical guitarist Sharon Isbin, as well as GRAMMY-winning musician/actor/author Steve Martin, multicultural chamber group Kronos Quartet, and long-time fiddle pal Stuart Duncan.
On the first track released from On Banjo, “Sun And Water” (“Here Comes the Sun”/”Waters of March”),” Brown creates an enchanting fusion of The Beatles’ “Here Comes The Sun” and Brazilian composer Antônio Carlos Jobim's “Águas de Março.”
On “Choro ’Nuff,” Brown dives into Brazilian choro music, a genre that originated in 19th century Rio de Janeiro. Alongside clarinetist Cohen, as well as Brazilian musicians Alexandre Lora on pandeiro and Douglas Lora on seven-string guitar, she merges Scruggs-style 3-finger banjo technique with Cohen’s warm and reedy sound to create a joyous rhythmic dance, proving that the banjo can be equally at home south of the equator. She continues the Latin-infused theme with “Regalito,” a tune she wrote for and recorded with guitarist Isbin. The end result is a seemingly impossible yet wholly accessible display of deft technique.
On “Foggy Morning Breaking,” Brown celebrates two of her biggest influences — Earl Scruggs and John Hartford — on a twin banjo tune she co-wrote and recorded with Martin, who calls Brown “the great lyrical genius of modern banjo.” The open C-tuned 3-finger style and clawhammer banjo styles tip a hat to Earl Scruggs’ and John McEuen’s collaboration on 1971’s Will The Circle Be Unbroken. “Sweet Sixteenths,” with Hull, offers a blistering “chamber-grass” duet that somehow manages to span the fingerboards of both the banjo and the mandolin — from the lowest note to the highest on both instruments while “Tall Hog at the Trough,” a duet with Duncan, pays homage to the Southern California bluegrass scene in which both she and Duncan cut their musical teeth, and which serves as a tribute to their mentors, banjoist John Hickman and fiddler Byron Berline.
On an album full of eclectic compositions, Brown’s collaboration with Kronos Quartet, “Porches,” stands out as one of the most unexpected, delivering a melodic and evocative journey in multiple micro-movements that makes the banjo seem perfectly at home on both the front porch and in a string quartet setting.
Brown is a trailblazer in modern music, becoming the first woman to win an International Bluegrass Music Association “Best” award as an instrumentalist (Banjo Player of the Year in 1991), and the first woman to be inducted into the American Banjo Hall of Fame as a 5-string banjoist (2019). Across the ten tracks on On Banjo, she creates artwork on her fretboard while opening the listener’s mind to the musical breadth of the banjo.
Brown and her band will take to the stage at the legendary Grand Ole Opry, Friday, May 5th, before continuing on to Owensboro, KY’s Bluegrass Music Museum and Hall of Fame, a taping of the long running radio show, Mountain Stage, an album release show in Nashville at Analog at The Hutton, a hometown show in San Diego, festivals including FreshGrass, Grey Fox, Bristol Rhythm and Roots, with many more shows to come.
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