Sometime back, Alison Brown established herself as an innovative banjo stylist and founded her own record label (Compass). It's easy to forget that she started off playing with another Alison, Alison Krauss that is, and recorded a number of solo albums for Vanguard. Best of the Vanguard Years draws from Brown's four Vanguard albums, recorded in the early to mid-'90s. As with her later recordings, she has composed material that stretches the limits of the banjo and traditional acoustic music: "Cara's Way (The Little People)" resembles an Irish jig, "Mambo Banjo" bossa nova, and "Wolf Moon" straight-ahead bluegrass. She also reveals that she's an accomplished guitarist on "The Inspector" and "Hello Mendocino!" There are differences, however, between Best of the Vanguard Years and her later recordings. Her writing and playing are more muscular and structured on this earlier set, meaning that even jazzy, open-ended pieces like "Deep North" never seem to drift into new acoustic vagueness. Straightforward arrangements of piano, banjo, bass, and drums on "Look Left" give Brown and company a more traditional sound than Bela Fleck & the Flecktones. It should also be noted that Brown surrounds herself with a number of great musicians, including Mike Marshall, Stuart Duncan, and Roy Huskey, Jr. Best of the Vanguard Years offers a 65-plus minute intro to the pre-Compass years, and will please Brown's fans and anyone interested in original banjo music.
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AllMusic Review by Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.