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Feature Review: Jake Schepps, An Evening in the Village: The Music of Béla Bartók

Jake Schepps
An Evening in the Village: The Music of Béla Bartók
[Fine Mighty Records (2011)]

This is a tale of two creative minds coming together: a modern day Colorado folk musician going half way around the world to explore the music of Hungarian composer Béla Bartók, one of the greatest composers of the 20th century and a pioneering ethnomusicologist. Though Bartók was classically trained, he was intrigued by the free nature of folk musicians and eventually collected over 8,000 indigenous folk tunes from Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and North Africa. Symbolically, he could be thought of as a predecessor to Alan Lomax, but one who documented extensively due to his own fascination in folk cultures and then incorporated various elements into his compositions.

Along comes Jake Schepps, an out-of-the-box banjoist, who’s known for eclectic explorations of his own, hence his band name’s Expedition Quartet. Undoubtedly, this is Schepps’ biggest triumph yet, essentially reverse engineering classical compositions based on regional folk melodies into another folk setting, a modern string band consisting of banjo, violin, mandolin, guitar, cello, and acoustic bass. To tackle such a project, Schepps enlisted the best groundbreaking players around, the nationally known Matt Flinner Trio, mandolinist Flinner, guitarist Ross Martin and acoustic bassist Eric Thorin; Sparrow Quarter cellist Ben Sollee and violinist Ryan Drickey. David Grisman Quintet’s guitarist Grant Gordy guests on three tracks.

Fourteen tunes are transcriptions of various folk melodies. Four more have “Mikrokosmos” in the title and were composed by Bartók as part of his “Mikrokosmos” numerically sequenced series that consist of 153 increasingly difficult compositions written between 1926 and 1939.

An Evening in the Village: The Music of Béla Bartók is a heady concept that does not fail in its implementation. There’s a certain grace and understated subtlely here within the texturally complex arrangements that offer something new with every listen. Harmony is prevalent throughout the proceedings where different instruments collectively form chords through their single-note playing.

Often a musician will play a melody line that’s echoed by another, and this exchange occurs a few times before veering off to an intricate counterpoint that converges to the lead melody. In the case of “Mikrokosmos #150,” the arrangement builds to an increasingly complex counterpoint over the span of 60 seconds, first in unison, then playing the same rhythm but different notes, then finally different rhythms and notes. The bottom end chugging “Mikrokosmos #149” has a denser and more modern sound; “Dance From Maramaros” is a short but beautiful example of parts weaving in and out of unison and counterpart while building momentum that’s capped off by a brief pause before resuming again. Interestingly, the stateside “Cousin Sally Brown” is not a Bartók composition but is rendered as a whirling round dance that easily fits into the treasure trove. Somewhere in the heavens, Bartók must be smiling at this latest manifestation of his earthly genius. [www.jakeschepps.com]

—Dan Willging (Denver, CO)

See answer to Interrogatory no. 8 for noneconomic damages.

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2 comments on “Feature Review: Jake Schepps, An Evening in the Village: The Music of Béla Bartók

  1. Kudos to Dan Willging and Driftwood Magazine for again catching the miraculous music dropping through the tectonic cracks of the free market system, shaped by advertiser-driven radio. This sounds like a project worth searching out direct from the artist. Extra credit to this
    reviewer for making such complex source music and its rustic adaptation understandable on a layman’s level. And for not once mentioning or forcing comparisons to the other Magyar
    pioneer of Americana banjo, that other Bela (no, not Lugosi!). Note to Eds. Subtle typo in
    ‘graph #4 likely should read: “subtlety”

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