If I were a casting director looking for someone to play a mad scientist, Ned Luberecki would be my guy. I can picture him in a white lab coat, huddled over an experiment, with an evil grin and a devious chuckle.
This thought occurred to me on the second or third listen through Luberecki’s wonderful, eclectic new CD, Take Five. Remember the fable about the frog in the pot of water on the stove? The frog stays because the water temperature is comfortable and only warms up a degree or two at a time until it’s too late.
Here’s why I had that seemingly bizarre thought: Because on this record, we play the role of the frog and his CD is the pot of water on the stove. The first half of the project is comfortable, recognizable bluegrass, with some Irish fiddle tunes mixed in. We settle in.
Then he turns it up a notch or two, throwing in a handful of jazz standards, complete with drums and electric guitar joining Ned’s banjo. Before some listeners catch on and jump away, he gets back to familiar territory with another fiddle tune. And then – turning up the heat a little more – he’s headlong into a Buck Owens country medley.
Finally, he wraps up with the theme from Star Trek. Didn’t see that one coming, did you? You might say that his 14-song mission was “to boldly go where no (banjo player) had gone before.”
This won’t be everybody’s cup of tea. Jazz aficionados will find the jazz not jazzy enough, and bluegrass traditionalists will blanch at the jazzy feel, not to mention the drums and electric guitar. But the rest of us can just enjoy Take Five for what it is: One man’s attempt to make an interesting record and have fun doing it.
Taken as a whole, Take Five demonstrates Luberecki’s mastery of the five-string. From the opening notes of his own tune, Night Driver to the familiar phrasings of Thelonious Monk’s Blue Monk, Luberecki is making a strong case for IBMA banjo player of the year. He’s equally comfortable and compelling across genres and across platforms. He shines in a full band on numbers such as Higher Ground, with Dale Ann Bradley singing, We’ll Put Out the Fire – a Jon Weisberger/Vida Wakeman song with Amanda Smith handling vocal duties, and on a splendid version of Tom Adams’ Adams County Breakdown.
But he’s also at home on more minimalist arrangements in which the banjo has no place to coast in the mix. The best of these are duets with his current boss and fiddle player Becky Buller, but the Buck Owens medley with duo partner Stephen Mougin (Nedski and Mojo) is top shelf, too. (Just in case Ned and Ms. Buller ever decide to tour as a duo, I’m claiming the rights to the name LuberBecky).
In addition to his banjo skills, Take Five gives Luberecki a chance to show off his impressive list of talented friends, including his current boss, his past boss Chris Jones, and an all-star cast that includes Jeremy Garret, David Grier, Rob Ickes, Shad Cobb, Missy Raines, Mike Compton and Weisberger.
Some folks, no doubt, will turn up their noses at Take Five. It’s their loss. The rest of us can skip the “is this bluegrass” debate and go straight to the more important question: “Is this good music?” The answer is a resounding yes.