Bartok: An Evening in the Village (CD review)

The Music of Bela Bartok. Jake Schepps, banjo; with string band. Mighty Fine Records 1003.

Note: Mighty Fine Records will release the Bartok disc October 6, 2011. This is an early review.

The term "classical bluegrass" never quite meant what it does on this album, An Evening in the Village: The Music of Bela Bartok. Banjo exponent extraordinaire Jake Schepps and eight of his string-band friends on violin, mandolin, guitar, cello, and bass play the music of Hungarian composer Bela Bartok (1881-1946) as you've probably never heard it before. And the surprising thing is, at least some of it works.

The idea is that since Bartok found many of his melodies in traditional Hungarian, Romanian, and Bulgarian folk tunes, why not adapt them for traditional American folk instruments. However, while it's a novel idea, it does have it limitations. I mean, why not just play the music on traditional European folk instruments instead of trying to accommodate them to an American idiom? Yet, where would the fun be in that?

In any case, the result of all this fussing about with the music of different cultures winds up something more American-sounding than middle European, which is doubtless the effect Schepps had in mind. He's playing largely for an American audience, after all, at the same time he'd like to appeal to classical-music fans of any country, so the fusion makes sense from a purely commercial standpoint.

The opening track, "An Evening in the Village," based on Bartok's Hungarian Sketches, sets the tone with its clearly bluegrass roots and vaguely foreign overtones. Will the fruits of this mix satisfy both camps? Who knows. Surely, it is fascinating music and well played, so there is no discounting those qualities.

Some of the numbers sound Western, some of them pure bluegrass, some of them pure blues, some of them jazzy, some of them conventional, some of them curious, some of them sprightly, some of them melancholy, some of them gypsy-like, some wistful, some melancholy, some joyous, some romantic, some modern. There is without question a little of everything here for everyone, yet it boils down to one's appreciation for traditional American acoustic music because no matter what the melodies or arrangements involved, that's how it's going to come off to most ears.

Recorded in Nashville and Colorado between April and November of 2010, the sound appears fairly close up, yet without any stridency or clamor. Instead, if anything, the strings seem a little too smooth, even soft, for the relative distance at which the engineers miked them. The transient response is quick, though, and plucked notes have a strong, well-defined impact. The bass is especially prominent, giving the overall sound a slightly heavy feeling, set within a somewhat resonant acoustic.


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