Bela Fleck And Abigail Washburn Bela Fleck And Abigail Washburn on LP + Download
Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn present their eponymous debut album as a duo, after many years of prominence as banjo players and composers in their own eclectic avenues. Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn is a front porch banjo and vocal album of new music, Appalachian murder ballads, gospel, chamber and blues; the culmination of a yearlong tour as a duo in 2013, following the birth of their son, Juno. Béla, an icon and innovator of jazz, classical and world, with more multi-category Grammy wins than any other artist (15 total), and Abigail, a formidable talent with triumphs in songwriting, theater, performance, and even Chinese diplomacy by way of banjo, turn out to be quite a fortuitous pairing with a deep, distinct and satisfying outcome. The culmination is an album like no other.
The record reveals their astounding chemistry as collaborators, as the two seamlessly stitch together singular banjo sounds (through an assortment of seven banjos spanning the recording) in service to the stories that their songs tell, with no studio gimmickry needed. According to Béla, “finding a way to make every song have its own unique stamp, yet the whole project having a big cohesive sound – with only two people,” was at the core of their joint vision. Demonstrating seemingly unlimited rhythmic, tonal and melodic capabilities, Fleck and Washburn confirm the banjo’s versatility as the perfect backdrop to the rich lyrical component that Fleck and Washburn offer, “Sometimes when you add other instruments, you take away from the banjo’s being able to show all its colors, which are actually quite beautiful.”
Thanks to this album, the musicians’ palette has never been more vivid or pure. Sure, in the abstract, a banjo duo might seem like a musical concept beset by limitations. But when the banjo players cast in those roles are Abigail Washburn and Béla Fleck - she with the earthy sophistication of a postmodern, old-time singer-songwriter, he with the virtuosic, jazz-to-classical ingenuity of an iconic instrumentalist and composer with bluegrass roots - it’s a different matter entirely. There’s no denying that theirs is a one-of-a-kind pairing, with one-of-a-kind possibilities. Fleck and Washburn have collaborated in the past, most visibly in their Sparrow Quartet with Casey Driessen and Ben Sollee. Until last fall, though, any performances they gave as a two-piece were decidedly informal, a pickin’ party here, a benefit show at Washburn’s grandmother’s Unitarian church there. It was inevitable and eagerly anticipated by fans of tradition-tweaking acoustic fare that these partners in music and life (who married in 2009) would eventually do a full-fledged project together.
Now that Fleck has devoted time away from his standard-setting ensemble Béla Fleck and the Flecktones to a staggeringly broad array of musical experiments, from writing a concerto for the Nashville Symphony to exploring the banjo’s African roots to jazz duos with Chick Corea, while Washburn has drawn critical acclaim for her solo albums, done fascinating work in folk musical diplomacy in China, presented an original theatrical production, contributed to singular side groups Uncle Earl and The Wu-Force and become quite a live draw in her own right, the two of them decided they were ready to craft their debut album as a duo, Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn.
The aim wasn’t simply to get the album done, but to make it feel satisfying and complete using only the sounds they could coax out of their bodies and their banjos. Washburn and Fleck didn’t confine themselves to playing their usual workhorses, her Ome Jubilee and his pre-war Gibson Mastertone Style 75. Between them, they used seven different banjos in all, including a cello banjo, a ukulele banjo that technically belongs to Juno and a baritone banjo that Fleck commissioned specifically for this album.
From track to track, Washburn and Fleck are a nimble band unto themselves. On the traditional tune “Railroad,” she sustains a droning feel, while he jabs in syncopated counterpoint. Woven into the middle of their arrangement is an excerpt from another American banjo chestnut, “Oh! Susanna,” an occasion for Fleck to briefly slip into a dixieland role. In their co-written original “Little Birdie“ he supplies what amounts to a ticklish, inventive bass line while she plays circling arpeggios and picks out the melody. “Bye Bye Baby Blues” is her turn to toy with droll, walking bass beneath his wonderfully jaunty licks. “What’cha Gonna Do,” which came entirely from his pen, lyrics and all, rides a churning groove made up of intertwining banjo figures and foot patting.
All that’s to say, there’s a ton going on rhythmically, tonally and melodically. Then there are the breathtaking ballads like Washburn’s “Ride To You” and the traditional “What Are They Doing In Heaven Today?,” which showcase the way she caresses a lyric with the hearty yet elegant empathy of her vocals. He’s singing harmony on a couple of tracks too, something he hasn’t had the chance to do since his New Grass Revival days. You’d expect Fleck to take the lead during intricate instrumentals, but that’s not always the case here. In “New South Africa,” which came from his Flecktones repertoire, he and Washburn each take a turn out front. And if you listen to “banjo banjo” in stereo, it’s easy to make out the subtle rippling effect of the two players seamlessly trading notes during ascending and descending runs.
A surprising number of the songs on the album address matters of life and death, a coincidence that Fleck and Washburn came to embrace. There are multiple meditations on the afterlife, one example being the Appalachian-accented “And Am I Born To Die,” which Washburn learned from a recording of one of her heroes, Doc Watson. And if they were going to record the Victorian murder ballad “Pretty Polly,” Washburn wanted to make sure that it was a version where Polly had a speaking part, and that it was immediately followed in the song sequence by her original “Shotgun Blues,” a song whose gist she summarizes as “I’m gonna come after that nasty, old man that keeps killing all those ladies in all those murder ballads.”