critic’s picks: bela fleck, ‘the juno concerto’ – danny barnes, ‘stove up’ – noam pikelny, ‘universal favorite’
Here we have engaging new works from three generational pioneers of the banjo, each exhibiting their often maligned and stereotyped instrument in a trio of radically different settings. Bela Fleck’s “The Juno Concerto” unleashes it with a full symphony, Danny Barnes’ “Stove Up” opts for a traditional bluegrass combo environment and Noam Pikelny’s “Universal Favorite” goes it completely alone. All are strikingly original projects that, because of the dramatic contrasts within the music they promote, unlock seemingly boundless possibilities for an instrumental voice still viewed by some as a purely rudimentary accent of the rural South and Appalachia.
Fleck is an old hand at this type of mythbusting. Even so, “The June Concerto” is quite a feat. Though hardly his first foray into classical music, this collaboration with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jose Luis Gomez is a rich and astonishing work, from the instant the banjo makes its entrance during “Movement 1” amid contained orchestral luster to the way the instrument leads the full symphonic charge of “Movement 3” while retaining a sound within Fleck’s impossibly nimble runs that is alternately commanding and giddy.
The recording is fleshed out by two equally dynamic pieces with the contemporary chamber ensemble Brooklyn Rider, the loose and lively “Griff” (titled, in true Fleck fashion, because the piece is constructed around a G riff) and a starker, stately “Quintet for Banjo and Strings” co-written with longtime pal Edgar Meyer in 1984, making it Fleck’s first classical work.
Danny Barnes is probably the least known of these three titans, but has very independently become one of the great innovators of banjo music over the past two decades, taking it into modern realms of jazz and electronica as well as the most ancient corners of traditional music and pre-bluegrass country.
The fact that “Stove Up” is a straight up, scholarly bluegrass session might not seem a revelation unless you know how seldom Barnes has traveled this path on record in the past. But once you hear him and a pack of bluegrass pros (that include past and present members of the Del McCoury Band) make the Rolling Stones “Factory Girl” sound like Flatt & Scruggs while making the Scruggs staple “Flint Hill Special” sound both reverential and original, you understand the depth of Barnes’ scholarly bluegrass insight.
Punch Brother Pikelny’s “Universal Favorite” is a pokerfaced triumph, an unaccompanied set of banjo pieces that regularly suggest Fleck’s warp speed tenacity, as on “Waveland.” The album is curiously colored by Pikelny’s baritone singing, which gives these tunes a stoic commoners’ touch. But the agility and daring of the musicianship here makes Pikelny a storied successor to the trails Fleck and Barnes blazed ahead of him.