Acoustic jazz is one of those “difficult” musical categories that doesn’t get much attention. Most jazz fans won’t take seriously anything that lacks a horn, while folkies are intimidated by music where they can’t hum along after 10 seconds. Ironically, if they give it a chance, both groups will enjoy Replay. Acoustic jazz at its best is downright addictive.
Alison Brown is known for her banjo mastery, and on Replay she revisits tunes recorded earlier in her career. Joined by John R. Barr on piano, Kendrick Freeman on drums, and Compass Records co-founder Gary West on bass, Brown delivers new takes on 15 previously recorded tunes. The entire session was done in only two days. Instead of the usual studio method, where each person tracks separately, on Replay, everyone played at the same time. The result is much closer to a live performance than a studio recording. Much of its spontaneity is probably because these sessions were never intended for a commercial CD, but merely to document the band.
From the opening song, “Red Balloon,” to the final strains of “The Promise of Spring,” Replay is breezy and lyrical without being flaccid or saccharine. Even potentially campy material like the “Spiderman Theme” becomes uptempo bop-flavored jazz in the hands of the ABQ. Not only is Brown’s banjo playing technically brilliant, but at times very un-banjo-like. Instead of banjo rolls, Brown delivers strong melodic lines that are about linear progressions rather than picking patterns. On “The Inspector,” Brown lays down her banjo in favor of an acoustic guitar. Her playing is so superb that on first listen I looked through the liner notes to see who the guest guitarist was. Not only are her melody lines inventive, but her tone and attack are impeccable.
Recorded by Dave Sinko at the Sound Emporium and Flying Lady Studio in Nashville, Tennessee, the sound here is as fresh as the musicianship. The entire CD has a vibrancy combined with a relaxed natural timbre that perfectly fits the music. Not only can you hear the subtle nuances of each instrument, but the ensemble blends into a cohesive, musically alive entity. In two words, “nice sound.”
If you’ve never heard Alison Brown, Replay is a fine place to begin your musical relationship. Longtime fans will appreciate how her quartet has revised and refined old favorites.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s April ’02 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.