Ben Freed,
Suite for Bluegrass Banjo
(Banjoben, 2003)

I'd never heard of Ben Freed before receiving this CD, but now that I have I'd sure like to hear more. This is a self-produced project that any of the major bluegrass or acoustic labels like Rounder or Sugar Hill should have been proud to release. Freed is a banjo wizard, and his playing and compositions are first-class. It isn't your daddy's bluegrass banjo, however. This is far-seeing, sophisticated music in the style of Tony Trischka (who penned the liner essay), Bela Fleck and Allison Brown, music that takes the banjo to places it's never been before.

Personally, I think that the toughest thing in the world of music is to make a really interesting banjo album. The average one is recorded by a banjoist from a bluegrass band who rounds up his bandmates and delivers a traditional mix of vocals and instrumentals in which he is the featured artist, but in many numbers becomes less dominant. Fine technique is usually evident, but the interest wanes before the CD is over, as in the sense of "This is fine stuff, but I've heard most of it before." That's not the case with Freed's album, in which your ears are constantly alert for sounds that you haven't heard before.

That's what Freed delivers from the first track, "Unhinged," which uses a bluegrass structure, but has twisting and turning rhythms and unpredictable chord changes, as well as great support from Rushad Eggleston's swinging cello. "The Keeper" bubbles right along, and "Bucktail Jig" shows Freed's prodigious talents on steel guitar, while sharing the stage with Eggleston's cello, making for a rich combination of tone. "The Sweet Spot" gets into swing territory, with some dandy mandolin work from Wayne Fugate. The composition goes all over the place melodically, and never flags in its energy.

"Skunked" has a funky, down-home sound, and Freed proves himself to have superior jazz chops as well. A nice change of pace is offered in "Kaddish," and then we burn again into "Hammerhead." Both this composition and the minor-key "Cruise Control" have great drive. There's a more contemplative, moody feel to "Nine Below," and "Hook Line & Sinker" mines more traditional veins, reminding me of "Jerusalem Ridge" in its tone. Freed gives us that old-time rock 'n' roll with "Road Hog," with its insistent pedal steel work, and "Live Bait" closes things out with some old-fashioned, mile-a-minute picking frenzy, which boasts some head-twisting, modern-sounding dissonances.

Beside Eggleston and Fugate, Freed is supported by some other top players, among them Kenny Kosek, Jon Sholle, Barry Mitterhoff and Jim Whitney, but the show is all his. His banjo technique is second to none, and his compositional skills are every bit equal to them. This is an absolutely grand banjo CD. I can't imagine any banjo player not learning something from it, and can't imagine any fan of bluegrass not enjoying it. Ben Freed is a gem, and I only hope that this modestly packaged but splendid CD will find the audience it richly deserves.

- Rambles
written by Chet Williamson
published 15 February 2003