Thursday, July 28, 2011

Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe

Rating: A-

Kenny Baker died a couple weeks ago.  His loss was fresh in the mind of those at Grey Fox Bluegrass festival, and one album that was mentioned repeatedly was Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe. I try not to read or comment on other reviews of albums, but the Allmusic description of the album started deliciously: "Is this the best bluegrass album ever made?" I will say this: it is the best instrumental bluegrass album ever made.

Much is made of Bill Monroe's presence on the album, and hey - he's a legend, and any time you can get Big Mon to play on an record, it's a win.  But let's face it - this is Kenny Baker's show.  What's amazing is how tasteful he is.  In a whole album of fiddling, there isn't a single self-indulgent note.  Even a blistered-fingers romp like "Monroe's Hornpipe" or "Wheel Hoss" feels like Baker playing the tune rather than showing off mile-a-minute virtuosity.  Gentler tunes, like "Lonesome Midnight Waltz," are almost elegant.  And "Jerusalem Ridge," which features both some mile-a-minute sections and some haunting minor key passages, has for good reason come to be associated with Baker even more than Monroe.

Baker is a masterful player of tunes, not an interpreter.  There are no seven-minute jams here that lose the melody only to find it again; the longest track is just over four minutes and most are in the two-and-a-half range.  It's professional; each song is fiddle - banjo or mandolin - fiddle again.  That could be read as a criticism, but it's refreshing here; the tunes feel almost perfect the way they are, and any frills would just unnecessary.  The final tune, "Ashland Breakdown," is a microcosm of the album; Baker takes a melodious break, full of long bow strokes and double-stops, then Monroe takes a typically excellent break, followed by a final Baker solo, which ends suddenly on a double stop, as the rhythm backing falls out.  It feels like it ends too soon.

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