At first glance, it might seem that a bluegrass album built around the bass would suggest a limited appeal. So credit Jeff Picker — an apt name, by the way — for imbuing an array of tones and textures into a set of songs deftly framed, primarily with a bass. Picker, a professional musician since age 15, first gained fame soon after, when he was named a Presidential Scholar for the Arts in Jazz by the US Department of Education. Accorded an artist grant by the National Young Arts Foundation, he received a full tuition scholarship to the Manhattan School of Music before completing his studies at Columbia University.
Those were heady honors for one so young, and yet over the past decade, Picker has built on those early accomplishments. Indeed, he’s put his talents to good use by contributing to any number of recordings by an array of impressive musicians — Ricky Skaggs, Mark O’Connor, and Sarah Jarosz, among the many.
With the Bass in Mind, Picker’s promising debut, finds him sharing a wide variety of influences courtesy of several specific styles — bluegrass, grassicana, folk, dawg, and, of course, jazz. Nevertheless, there’s a shared consistency found in his deft delivery, be it the uptempo sounds of Chair in theSun, Hat Creek Outfit, Ricky’s Run, Rooster in the Wall, and Disturbance in the Kitchen, or the decidedly pensive approach explored in such songs as Ground Delay Waltz, Pensacola, and Perennial, each of which shares a relatively wistful and more introspective attitude.
Picker and his collaborators — guitarist Jake Stargel, fiddler Mike Barnett, banjo player Cory Walker, and mandolin player Dominick Leslie — instill ambiance and atmosphere in each of these original instrumentals, while still allowing the arrangements to remain both sturdy and spare. Pickers bass work naturally helps shape each melody, but to his credit, he never attempts to overshadow the others. Instead he takes only one real solo, and it’s only briefly at that when it comes near the album’s close on the aforementioned ramble, Ricky’s Run.
Ultimately, Picker deserves credit for taking such an assertive stance overall, an achievement made all the more remarkable given the bass’ traditional role as a supporting instrument that rarely shines in the spotlight. With the Bass in Mind, that particular notion finds a thoughtful alternative.