Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn are individually two exceptional talents, with an amazing history of music making. Béla in particular is world renowned for taking banjo playing to a whole new level and has 15 Grammies, with nominations in jazz, classical, pop, country, bluegrass, folk, spoken word, composing and arranging, more categories than anyone else. Abigail meanwhile had lit up the old-timey scene, injecting a much needed dose of sass and class with Uncle Earl, before starting her own musical odyssey, drawing on her own skills as singer, player and composer, adding just a soupcon of her love of Chinese culture. It was perhaps written in the stars that they should come together, but few would have predicted the stellar results encapsulated by their eponymous first duo album. It’s an exceptional work that finds the couple easy in each other’s company and crucially at the top of their game.
Béla Fleck is widely acknowledged as one of the world’s most innovative and technically gifted banjo players. He’d already demonstrated both the ability and the courage to take the banjo into progressive new territory, when he joined New Grass Revival in 1981. Béla proved a perfect fit with a combo that were prepared to work outside of the bluegrass traditions and strike for wider musical horizons, but when Béla joined they pushed on even further, capturing a sizeable new audience in the process. In Béla’s time New Grass Revival released four successful studio albums and a live album.
At the end of the 80s and despite ongoing commercial success, the Band’s founder Sam Bush called time on New Grass Revival and so Béla put The Flecktones together, with keyboard player Howard Levy, whom Béla had already known for a couple of years. With the incredibly inventive Wooten brothers, they pushed the sound even further into jazz and fusion territory. Once more through a combination of outstanding musicianship and sheer hard work, playing 200 plus gigs a year, The Flecktones took the music world by storm, proving the wisdom in Béla’s cutting edge approach to his instrument.
Abigail at first harboured ambitions to be a lawyer improving US-China relations, having fallen under the spell of the country and culture and become a fluent speaker. Her direction lay elsewhere, however, when early in the new millennium she moved to Nashville and there met K C Groves, becoming part of Uncle Earl, just when the band really found its feet. The all g’Earl band, as they delighted in calling themselves, were one of the best of the growing old-timey musical scene and released two well regarded albums for Rounder. The first attracted the former Zeppelin man John Paul Jones, who was on hand to produce the second.
As is often the way on the roots and folk scene, all of the g’Earls had solo careers running in parallel, which eventually became too difficult to coordinate and so Uncle Earl drifted apart. For Abigail, releasing her debut solo record through Nettwerk in 2005 and also forming The Sparrow Quartet, with whom she toured China and released an album in 2008, the seeds of her new life and also this album had been sown.
Abigail and Béla first came together as a musical partnership for that 2005 solo album, Song Of The Traveling Daughter, with Fleck in the producer’s chair. That same year they started playing together in the Sparrow Quartet, releasing one album three years later and touring extensively, playing over 100 shows across America to support the release. In 2009 their blossoming relationship was confirmed when the couple were married and last year Abigail gave birth to their first son christened Juno.
As it transpires this became the final factor in persuading both that the time was right for a duo album. Particularly for Béla, who himself is the product of a broken home, the arrival of a first child was time to pause and as he has said, “I have a lot of musician friends who missed their kids’ childhoods because they were touring. The combination of those two things really made me not want to be one of those parents. I don’t want to be somebody that Juno sees only once in a while. We need to be together, and this is a way we can be together a whole lot more.”
Of course it helps that the family home also houses a top-flight recording facility, because as all parents will know, the arrival of a child tends to make for sleepless nights. For Abigail in particular, the nursing of a young babe at arms, proved tiring and she credits Béla’s skills in organising and creating the time to see the project through. Young mothers and particularly those who are musicians will probably identify with her comment that, “There were a few months when Juno was a newborn that I just really had to have somebody say, ‘Hey, this is what we’re gonna do today.’ As long as I could spend a few hours a day between nursings, we could make some good progress on the record.”
So balancing the needs of an infant and the creative drive, Béla and Abigail have done what come naturally and recorded this album together, with their contrasting banjo techniques meshed into a brilliant holistic sound. As Béla has explained, “We didn’t want any other instruments on there, because we’re into this idea that we’re banjo players, and that should be enough. Why do you always have to have a rhythm section, a guitar player, a bass player or something? Sometimes when you add other instruments, you take away from the ability of the banjo to show all its colours, which are actually quite beautiful.” That said they’ve broadened the range of banjos from their signature instruments to include a specially commissioned baritone model amongst other variants.
Abigail is naturally the lead voice as she’s a very fine singer indeed, with that old-timey gift of empathy with the stories and characters that populate the songs on the album. Her voice is occasionally doubled up, but Béla also sings harmony, something that he hasn’t done since his New Grass days.
But it’s the way they sing and play together that makes this special with Béla naturally inventive as ever, taking melodic tangents at will. He’s also commented, however, on finding something in Abigail’s more direct style that drew on different facets of his own playing, balancing the heady technical side with a more nuanced feel for the emotional heartland of the songs and tunes. Abigail too admits that she has had to push herself to keep up with Béla’s fluid invention, but then that would almost certainly be true of anyone, and she really is an excellent player in her own right. Still it’s in the constant desire to harmonise their playing that the magic happens.
Magic it is too, over a surprisingly diverse collection of songs and tunes. The opener Railroad, is one of a trio of old-timey staples and apparently included after Béla heard Abigail singing it to Juno. The combination of different banjo techniques are there from the start, with a rippling backdrop overlaid with stabbing counterpoint seeking out some unexpected harmonies. When Oh Susanna is suddenly introduced, it brings a smile to the lips and is indicative of a playful spirit that remains throughout even though there is some much darker material, shot through with life and death.
Sounding straight from that old-time songbook, although actually a Fleck Washburn original, Little Birdie, is fraught with the stalking perils of the infant leaving the mother’s care, although with a happy conclusion this time. There’s a bass line from the cello banjo that picks up on an intro that floats in from China, while Abigail flutters above it all. Pretty Polly is a version of the murder ballad, given a haunting melancholy and brilliantly arranged, ghostly voices and all. It’s immediately followed by an original song Shotgun Blues in which Abigail turns vigilante, It sets off like a latter day Tom Waits’ song before a rippling banjo line casts a transformative spell of dizzying invention. There are further brushes with mortality with And I’m Born To Die and a couple of tracks later, What Are They Doing In Heaven Today? The first contrasts a cavernous, ringing reverb with a stark solo banjo to otherworldly effect, while the latter is a beautifully melodic finger dance and a hymn questioning earthly suffering. Béla’s own What’cha Gonna Do meanwhile is laced with visions of dystopian apocalypse, underpinned by the clever use of the baritone again.
Betwixt and between there are some gorgeous instrumentals. New South Africa is a brightly optimistic paean of the end of apartheid, which comes form The Flecktones days and features some astonishing, virtuosic extemporisation that you simply don’t want to end. There is also Bartók’s For Children – Children’s Dance. Béla is of course named after the Hungarian composer and given the circumstances that the couple find themselves in, this seems an appropriate choice. It’s elegantly performed, if simply arranged and creates a neat self contained interlude amongst the more worldly concerns. Turning one of the most famous banjo pieces on its head, banjo banjo is all about the dialogue rather than the duel, although none the less, slips between graceful luxury and down-home sensibility.
Rounding things off, Bye Bye Baby Blues, mixes a jug band swing with some more astonishingly feet fingered fret work and ends with Juno’s recorded debut. His happy gurgle threatens to break into a tune, suggesting that their son and heir is perhaps destined to become the banjo’s ‘chosen on,’ adding the punch line to an affectionate joke that demonstrates just how revered Béla and Abigail are amongst their peers.
So with Béla and Abigail stripped back to just banjo and voice, the paradox is that there is so much packed into this record. Brimful of musical excellence, it none the less doesn’t just simply dress to impress, but never loses sight of the spirited humanity of the songs and stories herein. It also defies any limitations that you might want to put on it and the skill is in the discourse that they set up, each inspiring the other, with nudges, cues and spaces in which to express their exceptional talent. If you ever doubted the banjo’s ability to take the sole spotlight, then this is potentially a Damascene moment, but with the pure pleasure of being proved wrong in such a wonderful way. Embrace it now.
Review by: Simon Holland
Out Now on Rounder
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