A first year composition student at Oberlin Conservatory, Max Allard takes an adventurous and — at times — a seemingly unorthodox approach to banjo. With his daring debut album, Odes/Codes, he applies lessons learned from such prestigious and prodigious mentors as Greg Cahill, Noam Pikelny, Jens Kruger, and Tony Trischka, not to mention Béla Fleck, whose words of praise adorn the album’s inside sleeve:
“A new mature and poetic voice on the 5-string banjo. Beautiful compositions and a very nice touch.”
That only begins to describe the music Allard shares here. All instrumentals, mostly composed by Allard himself, the tunes are primarily centered on solo banjo, with the exception of two guitar interludes and a solo piano piece. Nevertheless, despite the limited focus, the music is consistently engaging. Supple yet engaging, Of the Morning, Prelude Near G Major, and Rideaux Lunaires are ethereal and atmospheric, each bearing a beguiling beauty all their own. Eschewing any sense of scholarly pretension, he manages to draw the listener in to his precious melodies, courtesy of both his clarity and confidence.
Indeed, this degree of precision can often result in a decidedly cold and calculated approach, bereft of emotional engagement. That said, Allard has accomplished quite a feat, establishing both his own artistry and a delicacy of design. In that same regard, while instrumental music often serves as little more than background accompaniment for those that decline to lean in and listen, the music shared here is neither aloof nor abrasive. It’s clever, creative, and consistently engaging and on tracks like Hindsight, the lovely piano piece, For Kaye, Avril 14 (a cover of a song by the experimental ensemble Apex Twin), and Deco (a rare duet performed with producer Jayme Stone), the allure is apparent. Allard uses the banjo in a way that combines subtlety with melodic prowess, transforming its traditional role as a propulsive instrument into one better attuned to grace and grandeur. Likewise, when he turns his attention to a pair of guitar pieces, as on Oakland Drive and Bittersweet Avenue, the effect is equally affecting.
Those that think that banjo and bluegrass are synonymous might have other ideas once they experience this remarkable record. Allard set his sights on creating a unique instrumental showcase and he certainly succeeded. As a result, his listeners can likely set their own sights on whatever further efforts Allard shares going forward.