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Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe – Review

The above review title may look a little confusing. OK, it is a little confusing, so let me break it down a little. NPPKBPBM (catchy!) is a reworking of fiddler Kenny Baker’s 1976 album, on which he re-versioned and re-styled a collection of Bill Monroe tunes, some very well known, so less so. And the current record sees banjo player and Punch Brothers member Noam Pikelny doing much the same thing, breathing new life into a now classic album of masterful bluegrass fiddle tunes.

So, banjo versions of fiddle versions of Monroe’s tunes. Will this work? Only one way to find out…

It’s obvious that Noam Pikelny wants to bring something new to the pieces on NPPKB…, and he has some interesting ways of achieving this goal. Road To Columbus rolls and tumbles in a ‘similar yet different’ approach to the tune. The derivation and the journey of the pieces are of interest, and the players do focus in these factors throughout, but this is not allowed to be in the way of the pieces and their playing. Like all of the tunes on display, Road…is accompanied by a group of backing musicians made up of Stuart Duncan (fiddle), Ronnie McCoury (mandolin), Bryan Sutton (guitar), and Mike Bub (bass). All of these players are excellent, especially in their understanding of their instruments and the tunes.

By the time we get to Brown County Breakdown, the ease with which Pickelny puts his own stamp on the tunes – by his inventiveness and style – is obvious. He is not afraid to explore the tunes, their sound, and how his playing fits with them. The version becomes both relaxed, and exactly on point, he permits his banjo to just be and to get on with playing the tune.

The first of the waltz numbers (of the Lonesome Moonlight variety) is a thing of beauty, with a laid back beginning allowing the tune to build, with Duncan’s fiddle speaking of the past as it mourns its way through the composition. So much of the album echoes this, speaking of the past (both in terms of the tunes and how they have been recorded, and of the music itself), but with a modern twist in the delivery – with the pieces acting as constants, in a continuation of bluegrass’ tradition, much of which was established and promoted by Mr Monroe.

On Jerusalem Ridge, Pikelny demonstrates freedom, fluidity, the mastery of his instrument and the full understanding of playing it, on a driving, forceful piece which is positively brimming with life. The band play well throughout, highlighting the different instruments in their pallet, with breaks played commandingly and passionately. Cheyenne starts off warm and soft, and, as the elements build in, the very clear ‘newness’ of the take comes to the fore. The light, breezy guitar breaks highlight the effort put into the album’s production by Gabe Witcher. The album sounds both fresh, and refreshing, and, despite the solo cover shot, is not entirely concentrated on the banjo, but delivers on all fronts, making for a highly polished instrumental bluegrass album.

Stoney Lonesome’s fiddle reaches back for an old time feel , whilst the assembled players add a sweetly flowing version of the well-known Mississippi Waltz, on which the banjo adds in some new flavours, making the version still the ‘same’ tune, but handled differently.

Closer Ashland Breakdown helps bring things together. The tunes on NPPKB… are touched on with a sense of class, technicality and understanding. The album shows Noam’s love of music and ability to stay true to the spirit of Monroe’s (and by extension Baker’s) tunes, whilst doing different things with them.

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