Banjoist Ben Krakauer’s first solo album, Heart Lake, is the culmination of a considerable number of kudos he accumulated early on. A professional touring musician since his late teens, he’s adept at bluegrass, jazz, and new acoustic music to great degrees, evidenced by the PhD he holds in ethnomusiciology. In addition to his teaching at the university level, he’s the holder of several awards won at MerleFest, Rocky Grass, and the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, all in addition to his stint as a sideman for David Grisman, and a former founder of the band Old School Freight.
Although Krakauer’s instrument of choice is the banjo, his ventures into both traditional and contemporary realms results in a daringly diverse set of songs. He cites the influence of Earl Scruggs and the input of Paul Kowert and Joe K. Walsh on several of the selections, which helps to account for a continuing shift in tone and texture. Nevertheless, Krakauer maintains a clear vision throughout, a studious approach that reflects an obvious zeal for his instrument. He approaches the material with the craft and creativity of a master musician, while providing added insight into each offering through the liner notes that detail how the songs were originally conceived and created.
Still, for all the talk about tapestries and techniques, it’s also apparent that Krakauer and his crew — Nick Falt (drums), Duncan Wickel (fiddle and cello) and Dan Klingsberg (bass) — were essentially involved as well. The meticulous performances and steady resolve that shine through such selections as the syncopated title tune, the sprightly pacing of Poodles, the easy embrace of Hazel Ave, the busy Groundhog Speed, and the sheer revelry of Weller, reflect a dedication to delivery that realizes its scholarly intent. The percussive element aside, each of these instrumentals adhere to a basic stringband regimen, but even so the musicians’ ability to vary that template and add other elements to the mix provides an intriguing listening experience overall. It’s a distinctive genre-jumping sound, simple but rarely straight-forward, one that allows each of the players to contribute in subtle yet suggestive ways. Krakauer may have his name on the masthead, but the airy arrangements allow for ample input, whether focused on a single pluck or the entire ensemble.
Granted, this kind of music requires one to lean in and listen in order to fully absorb all it has to offer. Subtlety and complexity coexist within the framework of each of these entries, offering a new musical experience for your ears. Kudos to Krakauer for providing such an intriguing set of songs, one that broadens the bluegrass boundaries while also piercing further parameters in the process.