Instrumental albums, even by artists that are very well known, can be a precarious proposition. Most of the time, fans and followers want the benefit of vocals and something that suggests either a catchy tune or a substantive song. Consequently, it takes a daring musician — especially one with a time-tested track record — to tamper with a proven formula and experiment with the unknown.
That said, credit Alison Brown for opting for an all instrumental album that shows another side of her musical mindset. Given that her main instrument is the banjo, she could have run the risk of either pigeonholing herself stylistically or become confined to certain narrow parameters that relate to certain cliches. Happily though, that wasn’t the case here. While On Banjo is all that the title suggests, the songs still stand out through a combination of method and melody. Every selection manages to make an emphatic imprint, and the lack of singing doesn’t impede on that impression with any of these settings or scenarios
Many of the offerings — Choro ‘Nuff, Old Shatterhand, and Talk Hog at the Trough in particular — take a jaunty approach within a sprightly set-up. So too, Wind the Clock offers another example of Brown’s ability to create a sound that’s effortlessly engaging. At the same time, practically every selection is similarly striking as well.
Despite the fact that the tracks are credited to Brown herself — the exception being Sun and Water, which shares a fleeting reference to the Beatles’ Here Comes the Sun, and Foggy Mountain Breaking, a co-write with Steve Martin that bears an Appalachian influence, and with it, archival authenticity. The aforementioned Old Shatterhand adds drums for a slight shuffle, while Porches, featuring the Kronos Quartet, veers into a classical motif and makes for the album’s most dramatic departure from the banjo’s expected role.
Other artists add their input as well, among them, Martin on double banjo, violinist David Angell, clarinet player Anat Cohen, as well as Sierra Hull on mandolin, Stuart Duncan on fiddle, Chris Eldridge on guitar, and Todd Phillips and husband and co-producer Garry West on bass. However, it’s Brown who deserves primary credit for concept and creativity. And that ensures that On Banjo is completely on point.