- 01 Aug 01
Are you ready for the jazz-bluegrass fusion? ALISON BROWN prepares SIOBHÁN LONG
Southern California might not be the first place you’d look to for ground-breaking bluegrass musicians, who run their own record label, who push the boundaries of the much-maligned banjo, and who know their jazz just as well as their bluegrass. But then again Alison Brown’s not a woman to conform to expectations. Former member of Alison Krauss’ Union Station, and bandleader with Michelle Shocked, she’s never been shy of change – or challenges for that matter.
The Alison Brown Quartet have recently finished a tour of the country, wending their way from Dublin’s Cobblestone to Listowel, Belfast, Tyrone and Galway. This is jazz with a hint of bluegrass like you’ve never heard before. Wielding a banjo like it’s an instrument of calculus, Brown manages to eke all manner of unlikely sounds out of it. Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs might have been her bluegrass musical heroes growing up, but this player’s redefining the instrument almost single-handedly. Or, at least with the help of the three very fine musicians who keep her company in the ABQ (Alison Brown Quartet) actually.
This is a sound that’s not just alien to our ears, she admits.
“To be honest with you, this is a hybrid of jazz and bluegrass that not many people anywhere are familiar with,” she laughs. “David Grisman was a huge influence, and he produced my first record. He’s an incredibly clever and innovative musician. He listened to a lot of Django Reinhart and Stephane Grapelli and blended that gypsy jazz sound with what he had in bluegrass. But what we’ve done with the Quartet is a very personal thing.
Playing with Alison Krauss was a pivotal experience in the evolution of Brown’s musical identity.
“It was the ultimate fantasy gig for me,” she admits. “Growing up in southern California, I hadn’t had the chance to interact with the musicians who had created the music from Appalachia like Kentucky and Tennessee. So to get to be in a band and travel around that part of the States, meeting people whose granddaddies played the music was almost like a pilgrimage for me.”
Southern California wasn’t exactly a cradle of bluegrass, so Brown cut a seriously quirky shape when she started to wield the banjo with surgical precision as a teenager in her hometown of La Jolla.
“I grew up in a beach community,” she recalls, “and it was a real surfing school, where people rode skateboards and carried their surf boards to school. So I was really an anomaly. But the other side of it is that there’s a pretty vibrant community for bluegrass and country music because a lot of folks emigrated to California during the dust bowl of the 1930s and ’40s so when I was growing up there were lots of banjo fiddle contests and lots of bluegrass festivals to go to. So I had this kind of double life!”
Alison Brown’s music is ultimately both personal and highly innovative. Wit and quirkiness are never too far away either. With tune titles like ‘Etouffée Brutus?’ this woman’s sense of humour is never buried too deep beneath the music.
“When we play in Louisiana they always laugh at that one!” she notes wryly. “About half the time, people find that funny. But it keeps us amused!”
The Alison Brown Quartet’s latest album, Replay is out now on Compass Records