Sunday, October 13, 2013

Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe Compass Records CD 4616 (2013)

For his third solo album, Punch Brothers banjo virtuoso Noam Pikelny chose a daunting and somewhat unorthodox task – recreating one of the most revered bluegrass instrumental albums of all time. Fiddle player Kenny Baker, who played in Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys on and off from 1957 to 1984 set out, in 1976,  to record an album of Monroe’s instrumentals with an all star band made up of current and former Monroe band members. At the last minute, Monroe himself showed up and played on the entire album. Baker’s fast, clean playing made him one of Monroe’s most recognizable instrumentalists, and Pikelny took up the challenge of translating his fluid, energetic playing to the banjo. Working with his own top flight bluegrass ensemble, comprising bassist Mike Bub, fiddler Stuart Duncan, mandolin player Ronnie McCoury, and guitarist Bryan Sutton,  Pikelny’s interpretations of Monroe classics like “Monroe’s Hornpipe” and “Stoney Lonesome”  sound familiar yet completely fresh, with Baker’s lead lines transmuted through Pikelny’s melodic picking. Pikelny's task of converting Baker's flowing lines to the more percussive attack of his banjo took a lot of ingenuity, and worked better on rapid fire pieces like "Stoney Lonesome" than it did on Monroe's waltzes. Pikelny wisely provided plenty of solo space to his collaborators, individually or, as on the plaintive “Lonesome Moonlight Waltz,” with the fiddle and banjo in tandem.  In some ways, Duncan had the biggest challenge by not replicating Baker’s lines too closely, but his smooth, elegant phrasing reinvents rather than replicates Baker’s more edgy, athletic style. The album’s show stopper is the ensemble’s take on “Jerusalem Ridge,” which features one of Monroe’s most memorably tortuous melodies, played here at an appropriately breakneck tempo.  Ultimately, Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe succeeds because of the strength of Monroe’s always memorable instrumental compositions and the energy and creativity of the young ensemble that both plays homage to and reinterprets some of the best work of their legendary forerunners.