||Anyone focusing intently on a particular banjo style often becomes blind to greatness in other styles. This can make us miss out on some really terrific music. And an album that can smoothly showcase great banjo playing in different styles can be hard to find. Here's a remedy for all that.
"Banjo Special" from Merriweather Records is a new release from north‑of the‑other‑border that effectively presents 17 cuts of clawhammer, bluegrass, and Irish tenor banjo playing. Having previously bought Arnie Naiman and Chris Coole's first releases, "5‑Strings Attached with No Backing " 1 and 2, I was intrigued when I heard of this project. Now that I've listened to it many times, I can heartily recommend "Banjo Special " both for those familiar with the instrument and those just becoming acquainted.
Chris and Arnie are from the Toronto area and both are masters of clawhammer, solid backup guitar players, as well as proficient composers. Joining them on this album are Brian Taheny, originally from Sligo Ireland, on Irish tenor banjo, and Chris Quinn playing bluegrass banjo.
Each artist on the album presents four tunes or medleys. Before you duck and cover, only the last cut, Banjo Shmanjo, features all four banjo players together! A remarkable job was done in the difficult job of arranging the sequence of cuts so that there are smooth ‑transitions from one musical style to another. For example, it would seem unlikely that a driving Bill Monroe bluegrass tune, Old Dangerfield, could be followed by a solo clawhammer version of Little Birdie, but it works.
Arnie Naiman, who produced the project, plays several of his own tunes here as well as traditional pieces. His compositions go well beyond traditional claw‑hammer banjo (or fiddle) tunes. While often melodically and structurally complex, they effectively convey emotion and sentiment. I am reminded of John Hartford's work. Arnie often uses very unusual phrasing that, at its simplest, can give the feeling of a crooked tune within a perfectly straight structure. It's interesting to compare these most recent tunes to the much more traditionally structured pieces on the first "5 Strings Attached" album. A larger palette with more colors is now used. While exploring the limits of melody and rhythm at one extreme, Arnie also plays traditional selections like the Santa Anna's Retreat medley that make you tap your foot, get out your banjo, and try to find the notes.
Chris Coole plays some of the cleanest, most melodically fluid and inspiring clawhammer one could hear. His '70s Tubaphone‑rimmed Vega has a wonderful bubbling tone perfectly suited to his driving style. On Cherokee Shuffle, he truly seems to be hammering the strings, as would a hammered dulcimer player. I imagine the right hand bouncing right up off the strings! I particularly enjoy his Year of Jubilo/Turkey Sag medley played on a 1896 Fairbanks and Cole fretless in double C tuning tuned down :1, to f BbFBbC. To learn the tune I tuned to double C and then played the CD using The Amazing Slow Downer software by Roni Music and cranked the tune up two semi‑tones. Worked great.
I enjoy playing Irish tunes (on the ukulele!) at local contra dances, but our band's efforts are galaxies away from the masterful playing of Brian Taheny. This is the real thing‑traditional Irish dance music played flawlessly with drive. With Leon Taheny's bodhran providing infectious percussion, and Loretto Reid's tin whistle on a couple of tunes, Brian multi‑tracks tenor banjo, guitar, bazouki, cittern, mandolin, dobro, and fiddle. The result is impressive and convincing. When I heard his medleys the first time, I thought it was a traditional Irish band playing. The banjo playing is amazingly smooth and precise no matter how complex the rhythm and melody. Sit down with headphones and your favorite beverage and enjoy.
Drive is an essential characteristic of traditional bluegrass banjo playing and Chris Quinn has it in spades. Chris is a rock solid Scruggs‑style player who throws in melodic constructs as needed and doesn't miss a note along the way. Anyone needing a clinic in rhythm and timing pay heed. His playing is clean and economical, yet inventive; it is mercifully free of the "watch what I can do" syndrome that effects a lot of players. On this album he plays two traditional bluegrass tunes plus an original piece. I particularly enjoyed his original tune Cold Tea. Like running down a toosteep hill, you just hang on for the ride. Chris Quinn also plays a fabulous duet with Chris Coole on Steam Powered Aereo Plane, by John Hartford. The bluegrass and clawhammer styles complement each other beautifully‑like vanilla ice cream and fudge sauce.
I enjoy hearing two banjos played together in different styles, but personally find more banjos than two a dangerous proposition. The final cut, Banjo Shmanjo, includes all four banjoists and treads that no‑man's land. They manage to pull it off, but it does rather remind me of a class at banjo camp!
Mention has to be made of the other accompanying musicians on this album: Erynn Marshall and John Showman, fiddle, Joey Wright and Dan Whiteley mandolin, Marc Roy, guitar, Loretto Reid, tin whistle, Leon Taheny, bodhran and Dennis Pendrith, on acoustic bass. While this album showcases the banjo players, these other musicians provide exceptional backup and solo instrumentation. We should know people like these with which to play music!
"Banjo Special" includes thorough liner notes with musician biographies, banjo tunings, descriptions of instruments played, as well as notes on the songs. There are 17 cuts, with 62 minutes playing time.
Donald Nitchie, March 2003
The Banjo Newsletter
Rating: [5 of 5 Stars!]