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According to Béla Fleck, he and his wife and fellow banjo player Abigail Washburn began playing together almost upon meeting. They've recorded together before on Washburn's first album, Song of the Traveling Daughter (he produced it), and with the Sparrow Quartet with Ben Sollee and Casey Driessen, but never before as a duo. The music on this self-titled offering was developed on tour before cutting it in their home studio. The tunes range from traditional folk songs to originals with compelling instrumentals woven in: two pieces by Béla Bartók in a medley, a redo of the Flecktones' "New South Africa," and the pair's "Banjo Banjo," which might be the best of the three for its timbral colors, warmth, and thematic variety. Both players are versed in many forms of music, and while that can't help but be on display, the real showcase is musical intimacy. These two banjo players combine different styles to shape a dialogue that speaks directly and distinctly to a love for tradition; they carry it forward as well. "Railroad" (as in, "I've Been Working on the...") contrasts her clawhammer style and Fleck's three-finger jazz-oriented syncopation. The bridge between approaches is the blues, outlined in a unique cadence by Washburn's crystalline vocal. In the murder ballad "Pretty Polly," the banjos talk to one another over octave ranges, conversing over time and space as modern stylistic developmental imagination is balanced by old-timey utterances. Washburn's voice relates the harrowing tale with haunting resonance. Her "Shotgun Blues," featuring her Gold Tone cello banjo, displays her percussive thumb strokes accenting each sung line as Fleck improvises on Celtic reels and Appalachian folk styles. His "What'cha Gonna Do" updates the gospel song "Sinner Man" but is still a warning -- this one signals a judgment day wrought by the earth as recompense for human abuse. Washburn's "Little Birdie" is almost hypnotic; her thumb stroke creates a near drone as Fleck bends notes to underscore the song's narrative meaning and assent to her vocal. The traditional folk song "And Am I Born to Die" offers not only Washburn's finest signing on the set, but innovative instrumental sections composed by Fleck that add power to the song's history. "What Are They Doing in Heaven Today?" is one of the more beautiful country gospel songs in the canon. The instrumental understatement displays canny melodic interplay. The set closes with "Bye Bye Baby Blues," featuring new lyrics drenched in modern irony. It preserves the swinging Texas feel of George "Little Hat" Jones' OKeh version (and uses his chorus), while highlighting the tune's rag-like quality. The way almost tuba-like basslines, tight chord voicings, and slippery fills wind around one another reveals what is so distinctive about the album as a whole: Abigail Washburn and Béla Fleck don't need a band -- they and their banjos are one.
|Label:||Rounder / Umgd|