Fingerpickin’ good

Banjo player Alison Brown combines bluegrass and jazz influences in her music

By the time banjo player Alison Brown comes to UNR next week, she may have a Grammy Award in tow.

By the time banjo player Alison Brown comes to UNR next week, she may have a Grammy Award in tow.

Reno concertgoers are getting the chance to attend a performance by one of this year’s Grammy-nominated jazz musicians. That’s an exciting opportunity, but there’s an unusual twist: The jazz musician in question is a five-string banjo player, and her nominations came in the categories of Best Bluegrass Album and Best Country Instrumental Performance.

Alison Brown has been one of the finest bluegrass banjo players on the national scene for more than 10 years. She’s equally adept at traditional Scruggs-style picking (in which the banjo player uses two metal picks on the index and middle fingers and a plastic pick on the thumb) and the more ornate and chromatic “melodic” style. She grew up in Southern California, touring around the festival and contest circuit during her teenage years with her friend, fiddler Stuart Duncan.

By the time she graduated from high school, she had won the Canadian National Banjo Championship and played at the Grand Ole Opry, and she and Duncan had recorded a duo album for the Ridge Runner label.

Brown earned her MBA at Harvard University and punched the clock for a couple of years in the public finance division of the high-powered Smith Barney investment house. She then took a sabbatical and signed on with bluegrass singer Alison Krauss for a three-year stint in her backing band, during which she contributed to Krauss’ Grammy-winning album, I’ve Got That Old Feeling, and was voted Banjo Player of the Year by the International Bluegrass Music Association.

So how did a world-class bluegrass banjo player end up leading a jazz quartet?

“I wanted to play all my own music, and the only way you get to do that is to start your own band,” Brown told the RN&R by phone from her home in Nashville. “My compositions began to take me in a jazz direction; I tried to figure out the best way to present the tunes that I was writing, and the best way was with a jazz trio.”

The ensemble she’ll bring with her to the Nightingale Concert Hall is, in most respects, a standard jazz quartet: piano, bass, drums and lead instrument. The only unusual part is that the lead instrument is a banjo. But even as Brown was honing her bluegrass chops as a youth, she was absorbing jazz influences, albeit passively.

“My dad used to listen to (jazz guitarist) Joe Pass a lot,” she said. “I was really impressed with his technique and style. I grew up completely into bluegrass, but I spent a lot of time listening to David Grisman and Tony Rice.”

Rice, a mandolinist and guitarist, pioneered a jazz/bluegrass fusion that came to be called New Acoustic Music in the late 1970s and 1980s.

As fellow banjo wizard Bela Fleck has demonstrated, there’s no reason why a five-string banjo can’t play jazz; it’s a perfectly chromatic instrument, and the three-finger picking technique that defines bluegrass banjo is perfectly suited to the cascading chromatic lines and harmonic variations that go along with jazz improvisation.

A jazz banjo player faces one significant challenge, though, and that’s the problem of sustaining a note. You can hold a note on a saxophone for as long as your breath will last, and the piano and guitar both have freely vibrating strings that allow the player to hit a note and let it ring. But a banjo, with its relatively soft vibrating surface, makes a plunking sound; this works perfectly when you’re playing a hundred notes a minute, but it can sound sort of plodding and tentative at slower tempos.

Brown, however, found a solution to that problem—she redesigned the banjo.

“One of the ways I’ve dealt with it is to create an electric nylon-string banjo,” she explained. “It’s a solid-body instrument, tuned and played just like a regular five-string banjo, but with a voice like a (Gibson) L5 jazz guitar.”

A certain unwillingness to do things in the usual way seems to inform Brown’s approach to music of any genre. Her most recent bluegrass effort, Fair Weather, is undoubtedly the first Grammy-nominated bluegrass album to feature a cover version of an Elvis Costello tune, “Everyday I Write the Book.”

“That was (bassist) Garry West’s idea,” Brown said, referring to the man who is also her husband. “We took the repeating instrumental riff from the original version, which sounds just like a banjo lick and works really well on the five-string, and built our arrangement around that.”

Vocals were handled by Sam Bush, a fiddler and mandolinist who, like Brown, has taken years of bluegrass experience and parlayed them into a wildly eclectic musical career. Fair Weather includes a couple of other unlikely songs as well—a gorgeous version of “Hummingbird” (written by the moody British folk-rocker Boo Hewerdine), and a rendition of “Everybody’s Talkin'” (written by the moody American folk-rocker Fred Neil). The fact that she was able to get acclaimed bluegrass vocalists Claire Lynch to sing the former and Tim O’Brien to sing the latter said something about the esteem with which she’s regarded in the modern bluegrass world.

That Grammy nomination is another indication. As a matter of fact, her visit to Reno will come just days after she attends the Grammy Awards ceremonies Feb. 21. Her group’s Reno concert was originally planned for that day, but it was rescheduled for Feb. 23 in order to allow her to attend the awards ceremony. Mandolinist Mike Marshall was originally slated to open the show but was unable to reschedule the date.

“That was a huge surprise,” Brown said of the nominations. “There were a lot of great bluegrass albums last year, and I was really surprised that it made the cut.”

If jazz banjo players are rare, female banjo virtuosos are even more so. Brown is aware of this, though it doesn’t seem to be a particularly big issue for her.

“There aren’t many women who play banjo, though I think all girls should,” she said. “The instrument really has a macho connotation in bluegrass music.”

The issue seems to come up most often when she’s playing and traveling in the South, where bluegrass music originated and remains very popular.

“That’s where I hear most of the ‘How does an itty-bitty thing like you hold up a big five-string banjo?’ type of comments,” she said. “Really, it’s not something I dwell on. Although I do think that my approach to the banjo—which is based on creating compositions that support ensemble playing—is more of a female approach, as opposed to the male tendency to play a lot of hot licks and try to outdo the next guy.”

Listeners can expect a varied musical program during her concert at UNR.

“My music is really a hybrid that includes lots of elements of bluegrass and jazz,” she said. “I love playing bluegrass music, but it’s much more interesting to me to be making this musical hybrid.”

As she described her professional life and her approach to music-making, it sounded as if Brown had found a way to do just about everything exactly the way she wants. She records for Compass Records, a label that she owns. The band she tours with focuses almost exclusively on music that she has written. She even has something of a controlling interest in her bass player, her husband, Garry West.

“It’s great. For the two of us, we couldn’t imagine it any other way,” she said. “The traveling is tough on a relationship, so I’m really glad that when we go to a gig, we go together.”

As for the other aspects of her career, she still sounded surprised at how everything has come together for her.

“I never really could imagine how anyone could write music until I left my day job and tried to do it," she said. "It still amazes me that I have this band that just plays all this music that I wrote."