Noam Pikelny has been building a reputation as one of the most talented and virtuosic young banjo players alive since his 2004 solo debut In The Maze on Compass Records. He is a founding member of Punch Brothers, the string ensemble led by Chris Thile, which The Boston Globe calls “a virtuosic revelation” and The New Yorker describes as “wide-ranging and restlessly imaginative.” Pikelny was also the winner of the inaugural Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass and praised by Martin as “a player of unlimited range and astonishing precision.”
Pikelny solidified his own style and solo approach on his 2011 album Beat The Devil and Carry A Rail, and successfully so – the album garnered him a GRAMMY nomination and international attention. He now presents his third solo album Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe (October 1st), a unique interpretation of traditional bluegrass through a bold, complete adaptation of one of the most influential instrumental bluegrass records of all-time.
“Could I get away with calling an album Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe?” Pikelny jokingly texted mandolinist Ronnie McCoury. Over a year later, as he reflected on the gag, Pikelny began listening anew to Kenny Baker’s seminal album Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe, and realized there may be validity to such a project; the instrumental classics of Bill Monroe are to the bluegrass canon what the Bach solo violin sonatas and partitas are to the classical world and reimagining the album would allow Pikelny to develop a unique banjoistic voice for each track. “The concept was to play these classic melodies note for note on the banjo,” says Pikelny, “but beyond that, this is representation of how you can play traditional bluegrass, in the here and now, uniquely in your own voice while still paying tribute to the masters.”
It also felt like the right time to put out a “standards” album: “There never seemed like an obvious opportunity for me to cut a bluegrass standards record. My professional career started as a member of bands way on the fringes of bluegrass, and so it’s almost like I leapfrogged past that moment,” says Pikelny. “Interpretation of the classics is an essential part of most bluegrass players’ careers—one way of showcasing your voice is by playing stuff that is already familiar to people. The guitarist David Grier has this great story about the time a woman who raised her hand in the middle of his concert and asked, ‘Will you play something that I know so I can tell if you’re any good or not?’ There’s definitely some truth to that idea.”
For the next two months, Pikelny examined each of the Monroe tunes on Baker's album with microscopic scrutiny and encountered several puzzles as he began to arrange them. The first was a matter of logistics: “How do I arrange something so idiomatic to the fiddle onto the banjo?” The second posed more of a challenge: “How do I make these classic, yet overplayed bluegrass tunes—tunes that have been recorded and played countless times—sound new and fresh?"
Ironically it was his non-bluegrass education and skills developed with Punch Brothers over the last six years that allowed Pikelny to solve both problems. “I was taking something very bluegrass-y to begin with and then fitting it on the banjo in the same manner as I would be doing if it were a piece of classical music, a Punch Brothers arrangement or an electronic synth part from a Radiohead record. Playing the melody on the banjo, just like Kenny Baker did on the fiddle, sounds progressive because it requires techniques that I never would have stumbled upon if I hadn’t been playing non-bluegrass music with Punch Brothers. It was a long and winding path to get to the point where I could consider the concept of this record and also have the technical facility to pull it off.”
The concept of developing banjo techniques outside of bluegrass to play challenging music isn’t new – In the first major shift from the Earl Scruggs-style of playing (where the essence of a melody is encircled by cascading drone string), Bill Keith developed a style in the 1960’s in which he tried to match the note-for-note melody of the fiddle more closely. Since then, banjo players have further developed those techniques of borrowing from other instruments; Béla Fleck recorded jazz pieces like Chick Corea’s “Spain,” and Punch Brothers even have an arrangement of one of the movements from Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos. By assimilating the styles of pioneers like Earl Scruggs, Béla Fleck, Tony Trischka, and Bill Keith, Pikelny was able to develop his own approach that turned all those banjo styles upon themselves to create beautiful and impressive arrangements of what he once feared would be clichéd bluegrass material.
“I’ve had the experience of telling a few colleagues about this project and they said, ‘Oh that’s great you’re going to be doing a record like that, but…you’re not going to record “Wheel Hoss,” are you?’ That comes out of the fact that, without some kind of real reinvention, there’s no need for another version of “Wheel Hoss.” The world needs another version of “Wheel Hoss” like I need a hole in my head,” laughs Pikelny. He was instead empowered by that challenge and, by sticking to his formula and following Baker’s melodies note-for-note, Pikelny’s “Wheel Hoss” is a tour-de-force tune that spans the entire fretboard of the banjo—technically demanding because of its range and speed while still musically real, and emotionally moving.
Other tunes like “Lonesome Moonlight Waltz” aren’t innately banjoistic either – the sustain of the fiddle is difficult to replicate on the banjo and Pikelny was challenged to preserve the lyrical integrity of the tune’s slow, beautiful melody. “I did a lot of note-bending on that tune and a lot of stuff that comes from my obsession with pedal steel guitar music,” says Pikelny. “I treated Kenny’s “Lonesome Moonlight Waltz” more like a sketch. It’s a simple, beautiful melody and so a lot of the choices one would make to ‘make it their own’ emerge in phrasing and dynamics.” As he transcribed each tune and checked them one-by-one off Kenny Baker’s master list, he began to imagine the recording process, and it was time to find the perfect band to fit the bill.
The musicians that Pikelny chose to join him on the album are some of the best in bluegrass and award-winners in their own right, and just as on the Baker album, Pikelny uses the same five instruments on every track— Recorded over a four-day period at Skaggs Place Recording in Hendersonville, TN, Pikenly's banjo was joined by Stuart Duncan's fiddle, Bryan Sutton's guitar, and Ronnie McCoury's mandolin, all underpinned by Mike Bub's bass.
For a generation of bluegrass musicians born around the late fifties/early sixties, Kenny Baker plays Bill Monroe was their definitive instrumental record. Kenny Baker’s album is a landmark collection of bluegrass standards that in many ways catalogued and set the standard for style and approach, creating a mini-fakebook for the bluegrass genre – the original album features twelve classic tunes written by the father of Bluegrass, Bill Monroe (1911-1996), performed by his longtime fiddler Kenny Baker (1926-2012). “When I was mulling over this concept, whether it should remain a text message or become an album, I started thinking about the fact that when I was a kid learning bluegrass, I would’ve killed to have had this record made by one of my banjo heroes-” says Pikelny, “ I’ll do it.’”
Though the musicians supporting Pikelny in part grew up with the original album and know the tunes inside and out, Pikelny chose them for their distinct musical personalities, rather than their familiarity with the music. “Ronnie McCoury asked me early on in the session, ‘Do you want me to play it just like Bill plays it on the record?’ and I replied ‘No, absolutely not.’” says Pikelny. “I’m using Kenny’s melody as a springboard on the banjo, but I chose these musicians because I love how they interpret the melody in their own way. I wanted their unique versions to be on the album and I think we succeeded in that. They played so beautifully.” The only aesthetic criterion given to the band was to play close to the melody as much as possible. Everything else was creative fair game.
Having the tunes and the sequence laid out ahead of time provided the band the opportunity to re-record the classic tunes as they had imagined over their years of absorbing and playing the album. The band was enabled to create fresh versions of each track by moving tempos around, featuring more improvisation, or featuring more highly arranged versions with creative exchange of the melodies. “I remember turning to Ronnie McCoury at the end of the first day of recording and saying ‘Ronnie, do you think this is the most money that’s ever been spent on “Big Sandy River?”’ and he said, ‘Absolutely, undeniably.’ In most cases, for a fiddle tune like “Big Sandy River,” you’d just go in and lay it down. But we wanted to experiment, we had to find the right version that was going to fit into the sequence and play best to this concept. So we spent over a half-day. Hey, it’s no small river!” says Pikelny.
The resulting record is a polished, reimagined approach to the classic bluegrass album. Never an exercise in musical impersonation, Pikelny’s end result represents a contemporary catalog of current bluegrass with a direct nod of respect to the genre’s legacy and masters. Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe, shows Pikelny at a new pinnacle of maturation as a banjo player and musician, redefining the role of the banjo in his own way with an unprecedented approach to melodic playing and thereby setting a new standard in bluegrass for years to come.