Noam Pikelny album review: ‘Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe’


Noam Pikelny will be performing at the Birchmere. (Justin Camerer)
October 23, 2013
NOAM PIKELNY
“Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe”

Kindred spirits: the Travelin’ McCourys, Bela Fleck

Show: With supporting players Bryan Sutton, Jesse Cobb, Luke Bulla and Barry Bales on Friday at the Birchmere. Show starts at 7:30 p.m. 703-549-7500. www.birchmere.com. $35.

Banjo innovator Noam Pikelny is usually found in the Chris Thile-led chambergrass expansionists the Punch Brothers. On his third solo album, though, the Grammy-nominated five-stringer plucker decided to look back at some of bluegrass’s most formative material.

Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe” is a reinvention of fiddler Kenny Baker’s landmark 1977 instrumental album, “Plays Bill Monroe.” The album is chock full of familiar standards — pioneering tunes by Monroe that are staples of the bluegrass canon — but Pikelny didn’t set out to simply regurgitate the classics. Instead, he took on the difficult task of note-for-note arranging Baker’s fiddle melodies for the banjo. The result, on such hard-driving foot-stompers as “Big Sandy River” and “Wheel Hoss,” is a dizzying flurry of notes that exemplifies why Pikelny is widely considered one of banjo’s young virtuosos.

Pikelny enlisted a cast of accomplished string slingers, including guitarist Bryan Sutton, who solos with spitfire finesse in the sunny romp “Monroe’s Hornpipe.” Fiddle player Stuart Duncan anchors the dark, stormy mood of old standby “Jerusalem Ridge,” while mandolinist Ronnie McCoury adds tasteful fills to the mellow pastoral sway of “Lonesome Moonlight Waltz.”

Without a hint of the high lonesome harmonies that give bluegrass its charm, the album starts to feels like a redundant, albeit extremely impressive, exercise in current masters flexing their chops. As an homage to the genre’s groundbreaking practitioners, though, it’s a noble effort that mixes the right amount of reverence and progressive spunk.

Jedd Ferris

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