june 2008

Diplomacy Through Banjos—Now!

by Billy Altman

covreAbigail Washburn And The Sparrow Quartet

If you've never heard Abigail Washburn, maybe the best way to start to talk about her and the Sparrow Quartet is to note what happens when you start to listen to her new CD on your computer. Look at the screen when the info comes up, go past the Track/Artist/Album/Title lists, and you'll see that under the Genre heading, every line says the same thing: "Unclassifiable." Then click on the track called "Sugar & Pie." On it, you'll hear a cello, a violin, and two (yes two) banjos, all grooving to a bluesy mid-tempo beat in an arrangement featuring tightly arranged interlocking parts but also solo interludes and swirls of jazz-tinged improvisation among all four instruments. Did I mention that this song is in Chinese?

While it may be true that there is nothing really new under the sun, Abigail Washburn has certainly been connecting some interesting dots since she first emerged in 2005 with Songs of the Traveling Daughter, an album that bridged Appalachian and Asian music in ways that truly gave new meaning to Bill Monroe's notion of "ancient tones." With a backstory that includes getting interested in old-timey music in a roundabout fashion after some college-related immersion in Chinese culture, singer-songwriter Washburn attracted the attention of fellow banjo player  (and fellow musical explorer) Bela Fleck, who produced her debut and subsequently joined her, along with fiddler Casey Driessen and cellist Ben Sollee, in forming the Sparrow Quartet.

While unclassifiable is an applicable term for this music, a perhaps more fitting word for describing the actual listening experience here is disarming. How else to relay the effect of hearing Washburn do a sort of Chinese yodel on "A Fuller Wine"? Or the contrast between the cracked corn blues of "Strange Things" and the folk stateliness of the instrumental "Kazhak Melody"? Throughout the album, traditions from east and west meet each other with a seamless ease that's truly impressive, with all four musicians nimbly gliding from one to the other. It's also a real treat to hear Fleck sound this bouyant as he bounces ideas around with Driessen, Sollee and Washburn, whose rhythmic clawhammer style neatly complements virtuoso Fleck's more bluegrass-based approach.

Washburn and her Sparrow Quartet have toured Asia as U.S.-sponsored musical ambassadors, and if this recording is any indication of what they offered Chinese and Tibetan audiences, they've probably improved America's standing in that part of the world far better than any politicians have. Diplomacy through banjos? Works for me.

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (www.johnmendelsohn.com)
Website Design: Kieran McGee (www.kieranmcgee.com)
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY; www.flickr.com/audreyharrod), Alicia Zappier (New York)
E-mail: thebluegrassspecial@gmail.com
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024