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DVD review: Alison Brown Quartet, Live at Blair

Alison Brown Quartet
Live at Blair
[Compass Records 7 4519 9 (2010)]

Nashville resident Alison Brown has quietly established herself as one of the great contemporary innovators and performers on the five-string banjo, a picker whose style is slick as ice, with an ear for arrangements and a knack for creativity. Her music blends bluegrass, jazz, Celtic and Latin elements into a crisp and vibrant mix. She can now be seen as well as heard in Live at Blair, her first DVD release, which documents a recent concert at Vanderbuilt University. Brown is joined in the hour-long set by her regular bandmates John R. Burr on piano, husband and Compass Records co-founder Garry West on bass, drummer Larry Atamanuik, and frequent collaborator Joe Craven on fiddle and mandolin.

All but one of the tunes here are Brown compositions. The soaring opening track, “The Sound of Summer Running” is a graceful and melodic tune arranged as variations on the repeating banjo line. In “The Magnificent Seven,” Brown’s high speed, syncopated picking is reinforced by Craven’s driving fiddle and some glistening piano breaks from Burr. “Hungaria,” the one instrumental cover, is a Django Reinhart jazz/swing classic rearranged for banjo and mandolin. Most tunes feature the banjo, but Brown also shows her considerably skill as a guitar flatpicker on a couple tracks, including “Deep Gap,” a traditional-sounding bluegrass duet in which she trades licks with Craven’s mandolin. And while this is an instrumental disk, there is also a delightful cameo by Brown and West’s two children that features six-year-old Hanna’s charmingly serious rendition of “California Here I Come.” This is bright, inspired music from one of the master instrumentalists of the modern bluegrass scene. [www.compassrecords.com]

—Tom Nelligan (Waltham, MA)

[ed p.s. From the author:

“I remember seeing her when she was a student at Harvard and playing with the local bluegrass band Northern Lights back in the 1980s. I’m glad that she didn’t let an Ivy League degree get in the way of a successful musical career!”]


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