Banjo Nickaru & Western Scooches,
Very Next Thing
(On the Bol, 2016)

Though one can hear how this music got there, it arrives via a curious route. It started life as an album under the current title but attributed to the Hot Jazz Jumpers. A week after its release in November 2015, bandleader and tenor-banjoist Nick Russo performed at the Northeast Regional Folk Alliance. After hearing some impressive music and meeting some interesting musicians (not least David Amram, famously at home in both folk and jazz worlds), he got the idea to re-record Very Next Thing, only this time in folk iteration.

That required Russo to learn the five-string banjo as he and his associates, prominently his wife and guitarist Betina Hershey (whose caffeinated vocals give the album an exhilarating charge), set out to fashion a modernist approach to the jug-band tradition. Western Scooches incorporate, strangely and delightfully, occasional bursts of Gullah-Geeshee (the historic dialect of African-Americans dwelling in the coastal low country of Georgia and South Carolina) courtesy of drummer David Pleasant, who grew up in the culture, and singer Miles Griffith. Among other things, this makes for a, shall we say, decidedly out-of-the-ordinary, something-like-reggae "You Are My Sunshine."

On the recording the four-member core group bulks up with a shifting ensemble of horns, bass, piano and percussion. There are 10 songs, mostly standards but also a couple of originals. "I Don't Believe in Love" is witty and craftily self-aware but also wise; those of us who've been around the block a time or two or three will recognize the sentiments. The covers range from Elizabeth Cotten's folk standard "Freight Train" (the opening cut) to the New Orleans street chant "Jock-A-Mo" to vintage pop favorites "Sweet Georgia Brown," "Ain't Misbehavin'" and "When the Red, Red Robin." The spiritual "This Little Light of Mine" closes the proceedings.

All of this feels of a piece, even as it sounds deceptively like chaos and cacophony as opposed to the sturdily constructed edifice it is. It underscores, too, how sounds from another time can be renewed and re-imagined, by creative minds and right hands, in the present moment. Banjo Nickaru & Western Scooches are ridiculously fun.

music review by
Jerome Clark

22 October 2016

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