Not all of the music I am highlighting is strictly or traditionally Appalachian music. Appalachia is a big place and its inhabitants are varied and have many interests and influences. The album I am recommending today is actually jazz, but its leader is a banjo player and has more than proved herself in the bluegrass and traditional music genres.
Alison Brown is one of the few musicians who has successfully merged the banjo with jazz music- and why shouldn’t she, many of the same notes are there on the banjo neck that are on the piano or guitar, why not use the banjo in jazz? At the same time though, she has not forgotten her celtic roots and frequently adds them to her compositions as well as hints of bluegrass. Besides jazz and celtic music, she also plays bluegrass and country and “other” and has recorded with Rhonda Vincent, Indigo Girls, Clare Lynch, Darrol Anger, Blake Shelton, Michelle Shocked, Tony Trischka, Tim Carter, Chris Thile, Mike Marshall, James Allen Shelton, and many others. She is a prolific and versatile player, but has a back up plan- just in case music doesn’t pan out.
Before becoming a professional musician (she played guitar and banjo most of her life), Brown went to Harvard where she studied History and Literature, then went on to receive her MBA from UCLA. After graduating she took a job with the banking firm Smith-Barney. Lucky for us all, sometime in the 1987 area, Brown was asked by Alison Krauss to join Alison Krauss and Union Station. (To be honest, the one time I saw Alison Krauss in concert, I was not at all impressed with Krauss but that’s alright because Alison Brown more than impressed me and made the show well worth the cost of admission.) Brown won her first Grammy for her work on Krauss’ 1990 album I’ve Got That Old Feeling. Speaking of winning things, Brown won the IBMA Banjo Player of the Year award in 1991 and was the first woman to ever win the award. (Kirstin Scott Benson has won it since as well.)
In 1992, having already left Union Station, Brown became the band leader of the Michele Shocked band and was able to start mixing jazz and folky type music with the banjo. This was an important job for her not only because of that, but the bass player in the band (Garry West) would later become her husband. The two later formed the wildly successful Compass Records which specializes in Celtic and Jazz music in 1995.
After her time with Michelle Shocked, Brown set off on a solo career and that brings me to my musical recommendation…….
Replay Recordings-CDs – Level 4 – M1630.18.A45 R47 2002
Some highlights of the album are:
Without Anastasia– This is a gorgeous song that is basically a banjo/piano duet and is just the sort of jazz/classical hybrid that I love. At times the two instruments are playing identical musical lines, at times one will support the other with beautifully complimentary lines only to come back together briefly before departing again to assume wonderfully different melodies. There is a lot of substance to this piece of music and I have never grown tired of it.
My Favorite Marsha– Alison plays guitar on this piece and she is an amazingly good guitar player, her playing is very lyrical and expressive. I once heard an interview of Pat Metheny where he talked about how he plays in rhythm with his breathing, his idea is that if a musician plays phrases longer than people would normally breathe that it creates stress for the listener. When I hear My Favorite Marsha I notice how nice and spacious the song is and how I almost breathe in time with it. I don’t know whether or not Alison Brown heard the Metheny interview but they obviously share the same idea about musical phrases.
I just saw Alison Brown in a concert and she had an amusing story about this song. One day a fan wrote to tell her that she liked to play Alison’s music at work. That is probably pretty standard but this particular fan was an astronaut! Alison wrote My Favorite Marsha about that and the song was picked by NASA to be used as one of the wakeup songs on the space shuttle. I think that is pretty darn cool!
Red Balloon– an almost raucous and jazzy tune, I don’t know why but I like it!
If you would like to see Alison Brown play live, you are in luck because she and her quartet will be appearing at the Lime Kiln Theater in Lexington on May 27 (I have my tickets already!)- maybe I’ll see you there!