Tony Trischka, Bill
Keith, Bela Fleck,
Fiddle Tunes for Banjo
(Rounder, 1999)

Here's the ultimate treat for banjo lovers, and a joy for those who like fiddle tunes, bluegrass and flat-out great pickin', but it requires a note of explanation. Bill Keith was a pioneer in many ways when it came to banjo, and not the least of his accomplishments was to figure out how to effectively play fiddle tunes on that most persnickety of instruments. Following fast in his footsteps was Tony Trischka, who gave banjo lessons to a young feller named Bela Fleck. The three of these banjo gods decided to do an anthology album of fiddle tunes on the banjo, and get together on three of the tracks. The recordings were made in 1979-80, released in 1981, and show up here on CD for the first time.

The results are as you might expect -- more amazing banjo work than you could shake a plectrum at. The three artists are spread out over the album, and it's fun to try and figure out who it is you're listening to, especially if, in the case of Trischka and Fleck, you're used to hearing their more recent recordings; players change their styles in twenty years, and this CD is no exception.

"Bill Cheatham," the first tune with all three artists, gets us off to a great start, with several different styles overlapping, from traditional to jazzy to bluesy. Trischka starts the album's solos with "Dust on the Needle," which also features twin fiddling by Matt Glaser and Kenny Kosek, and a nice Monroe-inspired mandolin solo by Andy Statman. The banjo does some great weird picking under the bridge, a very "Trischkaesque" sound that segues nicely into the Irish "Paddy Kelly's Jig."

Bela Fleck takes the stage from his mentor for some fine single-line picking with "Fiddler's Dream," a Texas-style fiddle tune, followed by a pretty waltz: "Barbara's Waltz," to be exact, and then "Salty," in which Fleck deftly reproduces the fiddle tune's triplets. There's more of a blues/ragtime/jazz feel to this one. Bill Keith is next in the box, with "Clinging Vine." The banjo sound is different here, more of a resonant, ringing tone.

Trischka returns with "Black Mountain Rag," flat-out pure picking at its best. It leads into an off-tempo "Old Kentucky Home," and offers a little vocal at the end, which reminded me of '60s Chet Atkins arrangements. All three banjoists appear again on the next track, "John Hardy," and offers the miracle of tight banjo harmonies (all in tune!). The first soloist plays against the beat for a cool jazz effect, and the whole track offers some of the finest ensemble banjo playing you've ever heard (and will be likely to hear).

Bill Keith returns alone with "Mead Mountain Blues," a change-of-pace Celtic tune. Trischka's "Vanished" is next, with wonderful interweaving lines in tandem with fiddler Darol Anger. It's Fleck's turn on the next two tracks, "Silverbell" offering a traditional tune and treatment, and "Christina's Jig/Plain Brown Jig" giving us some jolly dance tunes played to perfection.

Speaking of jolly, Keith's next tune is "Jolly Waffle Man." There are some non-traditional chord progressions here, shifting from major to minor, and the other musicians follow without a hitch. The complex ensemble work throughout this album is just as impressive as the banjo soloists, and the supporting musicians follow the twisting and turning melodies with style and intelligence. In "Old Sandy River Belle," Trischka returns to Texas, but stands the tradition on its head in spots. Mile-a-minute bluegrass follows in Bill Keith's superb rendition of "Panhandle Country," and the CD ends with one last successful triple play of Keith to Trischka to Fleck. "Salt Creek," an old standard, gets a modern workout here, with some muscular, angular picking, and a massive choral effect from the three banjos playing at once.

For the banjo pickers and lovers among us, this is a must have, as much a summit meeting of banjo players as "The Three Tenors" is a summit meeting of, well, tenors. Even though it's twenty years old, you're not likely to hear much better banjo playing today. It's also a hoot to hear young Bela Fleck on the threshold of his career, as well as the pickers who inspired him. I hope Rounder continues to bring these treasures out of their vaults. Music as good as this never grows old.

[ by Chet Williamson ]

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