Black-Tie Banjo,
At Home
(self-produced, 1996)

For those unfamiliar with the sounds and styles of classical banjo, I'll need to do a little description here to set the stage for this review. Imagine if you will, a parlor at the turn of the century. Yes, that's right -- a parlor, not a living room. In it, you might find some antique polished wood furniture, high-backed chairs covered with velvet, ornate gold framed pictures, plain walls and patterned carpet, and a parlor grand piano with a velvet-covered tripod stool. Got the picture? This is roughly what appears on the album cover for At Home, and it really is symbolic of the music contained within. Now, imagine a banjoist and a pianist in the room, entertaining some well-dressed guests, and you will probably come up with something close to the essence of the music played by Black-Tie Banjo.

Black-Tie Banjo is Geoff Freed and Ann Frenkel. They play a good mix of parlor and 20th-century music by composers of the late 1800s to today. Freed plays his 5-string banjo in an amazingly dexterous finger-picking style. Frenkel, on piano, provides mainly accompaniment, but can also be heard in a more central role in some pieces, and her harmony parts are wonderful.

There's a bit of the history of finger-style banjo in the liner notes accompanying this recording. The instrument gained immense popularity in the 1840s as an important part of minstrel shows, and by the 1860s it was being played in a guitar style. By the end of the 19th century, it was quite popular, being used for classical music in homes and concert halls in England and America. Also included are notes on the composers on the album, which will be appreciated by anyone with an interest in the instrument.

This was rather a new type of music for me -- I'd never really given much thought to classical-style banjo before. To me, banjo was something I heard in perhaps country, ragtime or Celtic music. Classical banjo seems to encompass a bit of all these styles, or more likely, vice versa. The banjo has a pleasant sound, which mixes extremely well with the strains of the piano. In a way, a lot of the pieces reminded me of silent movie tracks -- just a similar sort of sound.

Even with my lack of experience in the classical banjo field, it is certainly obvious that Freed is an incredible talent. His fingers seem to fly effortlessly over the strings and each note is clear and distinct, even with the faster pieces and plenty of ornamentation. Frenkel as well is a skilled musician. Her playing is quite versatile -- from light and effervescent to forceful and dark, she easily changes tones with the requirements of the piece at hand.

The recording is well organized, with good flow from more cheerful pieces, such as the nimble "Joe Morley's Cakewalk" or playful "Une Pensee" to the classical pieces like "Gavotte in F" or "Nocturnes for Banjo and Piano, Op. 104." "Fun on the Wabash" is one of my favorites. It starts off on the slower side, giving me images of a lazy boat ride on a river, then the tempo picks up a bit. The piano holds a fine beat, and I was really impressed with Freed's picking of the melody.

"Rose Leaves" features some great little harmony bits between banjo and piano, and in "It's Monday Night!" I was struck once again by the complementary nature of the two instruments. They harmonize well together, and provide a really pleasant sound. Both Freed and Frenkel are to be commended on their nimble playing and cohesiveness.

I don't think that I'm going to be turned into a classical banjo enthusiast overnight. I prefer to hear banjo and piano in the context of traditional music, rather than classical. However, if I were ever leaning that way, or perhaps looking for a rather unique way to entertain friends with an interest in classical or parlor music, I would not hesitate to choose this recording.

[ by Cheryl Turner ]
Rambles: 25 August 2001