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Noam Pikelny

Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe – 2013 (Compass)

Reviewed by Kevin Oliver

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CDs by Noam Pikelny

Born of a joke between musicians about the album title, banjo player Noam Pikelny's latest solo offering is an engaging take on a classic bluegrass instrumental album from fiddler Kenny Baker. One of the best known of Bill Monroe's many fiddle players, Baker's original album came out in the early 1970's and featured many of the Bluegrass Boys along with Monroe himself, playing songs that they had made famous in the bluegrass scene. Pikelny, a member of Punch Brothers, re-imagines the tunes as banjo-led pieces to extraordinary effect, with the result being anyone familiar with the previous versions will recognize them quickly, but those new to them won't even realize anything's unusual at all here.

Pikelny's talent isn't usual, that's for sure, and his melodic phrasing and staggering clarity on the fast runs is what sets him apart (See Wheel Hoss for one breakneck-speed example.). Here, he isn't so much tied down to the original tunes as he is liberated by the arrangements and the re-voicing from fiddle to banjo, which makes the old sound new again.

There are times when one can distinctly hear the banjo-as-fiddle sound, such as the opening to Stoney Lonesome, and others (the majority of the tracks, in fact) where it simply comes across as just a great banjo tune. Pikelny assembled a great lineup to fill out the five-piece band, including Mike Bub on bass, Stuart Duncan on fiddle, Ronnie McCoury on mandolin and Bryan Sutton on guitar. They're more than familiar with these tunes, obviously, but the playing here is fresh and invigorating, not rote or overly studied.

Any fan of instrumental bluegrass undoubtedly has the original Kenny Baker album in their collection, and most pickers know these tunes by heart. Pikelny's major accomplishment. Pikelny's major accomplishment here, then, is that he has managed to give them a 'new coat of paint' without obscuring the foundation they were built upon.