The fat, metallic plunk of a banjo is a sound rarely found in popular music. With the notable exception of bluegrass, and an occasional cameo appearance in folk or country tunes, the banjo is usually relegated to corny barbershop quartets or Civil War re-enactments. As such, it has been an instrument inextricably locked in time and association with about as much glamour as a tuba in a high school band. Until now.
With the relentless drive of a diehard fan, banjoist Alison Brown is taking
the banjo where it’s never been before. By defying the scorn of popular whim,
Brown is boldly bringing the banjo out of the closet and mixing it up with
some unusual new friends, far from the backwoods/moonshine trappings of its
past. And although the music has wide-reaching appeal, getting heard is
“There is this whole Hee-haw image of the banjo that’s hard to shake,”
admits Brown in a recent interview. “I was nominated for a Grammy in the
Bluegrass category, but this is hardly bluegrass. The hardest thing to overcome
is when you don’t fit in anywhere, but that’s the way the business works.”
Brown plays music that has few, if any, attachments to established genres.
Her long, string-driven runs, blend effortlessly with bass, piano, and drums
in an eclectic mix of instrumental flavors that touch many styles yet proclaim
loyalty to none. Musically inventive at best, unclassifiable at worst, Brown
and her quartet defy convention.
“It’s a hybrid thing really. I come from a bluegrass background, but
we have these jazz things happening in there. I wouldn’t call it jazz, but
it’s a far cry from bluegrass, too,” she chuckles, continuing, “What happens
is that bluegrass people call it jazz and jazz people call it bluegrass, so
we are kind of betwixt and between.”
Listening to the quartet’s recent self-titled release, it’s easy to see
why this band falls everywhere and nowhere on the scale. Like her mentors,
avant-garde banjoist, Bela Fleck and multi-string master, David Grisman, Brown
makes the most of the banjo’s limited role. Playing as an equal partner in
the group, Brown is content to let the definitive sound and characteristics
of the banjo speak for itself. And, unlike the aforementioned banjoists,
Brown finds a popular medium for the instrument that avoids the complexity
of Fleck’s experimentation or the tradition of Grisman.
“One of the unusual characteristics of a banjo is that there is no sustain,”
says Brown. “It is a very tricky thing to deal with, because you can’t hold
a note for very long. You plunk it and that’s about the end of the note.
Of course, you can alter that sound electronically with reverbs and stuff,
but I prefer the acoustic sound of the real banjo the best. So, I’ll take
a backseat in some pieces because the banjo can’t hold a note or fill a space
in some songs the way it can in others.”
Joined by John Burr on piano, Garry West on bass, and Rick Reed on drums,
Alison brings a decidedly unique slant to an otherwise standard jazz-influenced
ensemble. By coloring the sound and supplying fills with ripples of perky
notes, Brown immediately shifts the focus of the music by providing counterpoint
and contrast. Witness the cleverly named opener, “G- Bop” which uses the
breakneck pace of bee-bop as the perfect vehicle for the fast-picking style
of the banjo. Elsewhere, “The Red Balloon” offers a jaunty melody that suits
the playful temper of the banjo or “The Wonderful Voyage (of Holy St. Brendan)”
that plays equally on the hollow sound of the banjo. In each case, her unerring
sense of melody prevails.
Brown’s unlikely introduction to the banjo came at an early age in the
plush suburbs of Connecticut. Receiving a copy of Flatt and Scruggs’ “Foggy
Mountain Breakdown,” Alison was instantly captured by the unusual sound.
“I loved that sound,” she chuckles. ““The Ballad of Jed Clampett,” “Shuckin’
The Corn”—all those songs really appealed to me, but there was no precedent
in my family. I grew up in a family of lawyers in North Stamford, Connecticut
so there was nothing that led me to it.”
Ignoring her innate desire to play banjo and following her family’s professional
career path, Brown went on to receive an MBA from UCLA and later worked in
corporate banking. Bored by the starch-white regimen of high finance, she
returned to follow her heart. After touring with Alison Krauss and Union
Station for several years, Brown eventually came into her own in 1990 with
Simple Pleasures. Quieting her parent’s doubts, Alison’s musical debut paid
off with a hard-won Grammy nomination.
“My parents were not really warm to the fact that I left banking,” she
admits. “And they have yet to see the connection between money and art, but
I have been places and done things I never could have done before. I have
no regrets. Besides, I think sometimes that instruments just choose you
and that’s what happened with me and the banjo.”