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Review: Michael J. Miles, Collage

Michael J. Miles
[Right Turn On Red Music (2011)]

A very funny albeit unfair Far Side cartoon shows the devil escorting a Maestro to his quarters, a room that contains nothing but men with banjos on their knees. Of course, Béla Fleck changed the image of the banjo as an instrument of very limited potential years ago, but there have been other innovators, not to mention other forms of banjo music, that have also contributed to sweeping away the instrument’s stereotypical image. Michael J. Miles is one of those players who’ve been pushing the boundaries of the instrument. With Collage, his fifth album, he offers us a wide range of material enveloped in original arrangements.

The album leads off with “Guaracha,” a composition that’s part of his “Suite for the Americas,” a five-part suite which he first recorded on his American Bach album from 1997. On the original version, Miles was accompanied only by double bass, but this new rendition features the Chamber Blues String Quartet, and it’s one of seven tracks to feature the group. Following in the tradition of the aforementioned album, Miles tries his hand at a few Bach compositions. On “Sleepers Awake,” for example, Miles’s banjo is fleshed out with beautiful counterpoint courtesy of David Jennings’s vibes and wordless vocals by Sue Demel of Sons of the Never Wrong. Although dozens of wildly disparate artists have taken a stab at Paul Desmond’s “Take Five,” Miles still manages to come up with a fresh new rendition. The album closes with a jazz version of Little Feat’s “All That You Dream,” one of three tracks featuring Miles the singer, the others being “The Cuckoo” and Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads,” the latter given an unusual but effective treatment that makes sparse use of percussion and fluegelhorn.

Gary Larson notwithstanding, Michael Miles proves once again that the banjo is indeed capable of much more than its reputation might lead some to believe.

—Paul-Emile Comeau (Comeauville, NS, Canada)


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