Alison Brown is not your typical banjo player.
The Harvard graduate, Compass Records co-founder, and GRAMMY Award-winning musician/composer/producer has changed the way we all think about the banjo. By muting the usual harsh overtones and extraneous noises, and instead emphasizing the sweetness and melodicism, Brown has made a name for herself as one of today’s finest progressive banjo players. Unlike most banjo players, though, you will rarely find her in a conventional bluegrass setting. Instead, she is known for leading an ensemble that successfully marries a broad array of roots-influenced music like folk, jazz, Celtic and Latin. Her progressive approach has completely redefined our understanding and expectation of the complex instrument. As she plays both words and melody, the banjo comes to life in her hands in an entirely new way.
Alison’s career is draped with accomplishments and accolades, but she is far from finished with what she calls her ‘ongoing journey of sonic exploration‘. Her most recent undertaking is Compass project The Song of the Banjo. Brown and her husband, Compass co-founder Garry West, assembled an all-star cast that includes some of Nashville’s most adventurous session players. The project also features guest musicians like Indigo Girls, Keb’ Mo’, Colin Hay, Jake Shimabukuro (ukulele), Steve Gadd (drums), Stuart Duncan (fiddle), Rob Ickes (dobro), Todd Phillips (bass), and Irish phenom John Doyle (guitar and bouzouki). Of the twelve tracks on Song of the Banjo, seven are originals penned by Brown, including the title piece and the piano/banjo duet “Musette for the Last Fret”.
Brown has built her career on her bold, nontraditional compositions. She has produced trademark compositions written in CinemaScope – grand, sweeping melodies like “A Long Way Gone” and the Celtic-tinged “Airish”. Bringing in bossa nova, “The Moon in Molly’s Eyes” features a lush string performance by Compass label-mate Andrea Zonn. “Stuff Happens”, written by Brown and West, inadvertently became a tribute to Gadd’s former band of studio aces – Stuff – which set the bar for the 70s pop-fun-blues fusion. Most surprising, through, are Brown’s choices for cover songs. The diverse repertoire ranges from a bouncy take on Orleans’ soft-rocker “Dance With Me” (ft. Ickes), to Cyndi Lauper’s chart-topper “Time After Time” and 1980s Chuck Mangione hit “Feels So Good” (ft. Shimabukuro & Gadd). In Brown’s masterful hands, every cover sounds as if they were originally written for the banjo. Brown’s unique covers incoporate two very different kinds of magic: revitalizing the rock and pop classics, while stripping away stereotypes of what a banjo can or cannot do. Only one of the albums covers, Michael Martin Murphey’s 70s bluegrass hit “Carolina in the Pines”, featured a banjo in its original score.
“Familiar music allows folks to understand an instrument that they may not be overly familiar with. The banjo is a complex instrument, with melodic ideas normally surrounded by rapid fire arpeggiated chords, but when you play a familiar tune it allows the audience to more clearly hear the voice of the instrument and to understand how they playing style is integrated into, and around, the melody.”
– Alison Brown
That is all part of the alternative banjo universe than Alison Brown occupies so beautifully. Alison brilliantly harnesses all of the unique elements of her music in the collaborative album Song of the Banjo. Hoping to both embrace the past and look to the future, Brown’s goal was to create an album for those who never realized how likable the banjo can be, while simultaneously giving banjo fans yet another reason to love the instrument. A true trailblazer in the world of music, Alison Brown has accomplished what she set out to do.