When I saw Jake Schepps’ latest album sitting in the review pile I chuckled a little remembering an old joke told to me by a friend after I chose the music of Earl Scruggs and Ricky Skaggs as accompaniment on our long road trip:
Friend: Can you read music?
Banjo Player: Not enough to hurt my playing.
Schepps didn’t start playing the banjo until he was 21, which is ancient considering most classical virtuosos are practically born playing their instrument. Why the banjo? In an interview with the Wall Street Journal Schepps says, “There are a lot of guitar players out there, but the banjo is different.”
Entwined is not his first ambitious banjo project, but he’s done something unique here by commissioning classically-trained composers to write music meant for a traditional bluegrass string band (banjo, guitar, violin, mandolin, and bass). The result is progressive, mature, and fun to listen to. “Everybody wrote pieces to their personalities,” says Schepps, “and I think that this variety really makes a big statement about how much potential there is with the string band for playing new music.”
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The disc opens with Flatiron, a set of eight pieces composed by Marc Mellits that start with exuberance and capriciousness before relaxing into poise and serenity. He takes us out of the series with “Dreadnought,” a lively piece that will make you want to grab a pair of spoons and play along on your knee.
Matt McBane is up next with Drawn, a beautiful five-movement composition in which gentle strumming gets stretched almost to minimalism. Drawn takes typical bluegrass style out of its stiff denim jeans and lets the bareness of it spin and sway across an expansive wilderness.
Matt Flinner, a banjo prodigy and acclaimed mandolin player, returns us to the spirit of bluegrass in Migrations. He’s ramped up classic Appalachian folk elements and created pieces more balladic than anything else on Entwined.
Gyan Riley concludes the album with something distinct. Stumble Smooth, which Schepps calls “the burliest piece of music I’ve ever worked on in my life,” draws influence from bluegrass for sure, but also from modernism and free jazz. The slow buildup highlights the percussive capabilities of the banjo before the piece evolves into what sounds like a fun, frenzied jam session.
Entwined is an adventurous project that champions the versatility of the bluegrass ensemble. Schepps and his collaborators have given us a loosened-up bluegrass collection that even modern classical lovers will enjoy. The only question I have is… have you hugged your banjo today?