Various Artists

Banjo Percussion

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If there was such a thing as the Tomb of the Unknown Band, then this album would be for sale in the merchandise booth. It comes with no information about who is performing, or even what it is that is being performed. There is a series of song titles supplied, one on the jacket and another on the record label. There is the eerie title Banjo Percussion and a crude drawing of a drumstick hitting a banjo head, which, by the way, is not particularly advised. Unless you want a broken banjo head, that is. As for a plain old broken head, this album is way too tame to cause that to happen to a listener. But it isn't that bad. It actually is a thematic exposition of percussion and banjo, although the use of either instrument isn't exactly something that would make a percussion or banjo fanatic jump up and down. In the former case there are sounds that could be produced by any low-budget school band rhythm kit, although solo interludes and introductory segments on this sort of percussion do create kind of a surrealistic atmosphere. A really crappy sounding wooden xylophone is often used to play solo lines in ensemble passages, which, along with the over-arranged music, creates an atmosphere something like Frank Zappa, minus the bank account. Banjo is often the lead instrument once the full band of horns, drum set, piano, and bass comes romping in. For the most part, this sounds like a large Dixieland band, complete with a pretty decent clarinet and trombone player who read lots of complicated charts together. When the group does Dixieland, it is really quite good. However, not all the material is in this vein and even the stuff that is is sometimes hijacked by the arrangers. The banjo playing at first sounds tame, like the efforts of some studio guitarists playing plectrum style on the atrocious albums by the Banjo Barons. In a sense, this record seems like a production in the style of that group, presenting anonymous, singsongy chestnuts that wouldn't be out of place on a barbershop quartet program. Yet there is much more actual instrumental interplay on this album than on a Banjo Barons ordeal. And once the program gets to the swing versions of tunes such as "Coming Through the Rye" and "In the Good Old Summertime," the unidentified banjoist begins building longish solos starting with single notes and working up to chording, employing skillful harmonizing. The sound of his instrument is also attractive, ringing like polished metal on certain strings. The version of "Stars and Stripes Forever" would be a good one for demonstration purposes in a music class, and features absolutely the best interplay between the drummer and the banjoist on the record. On both this track and the following Dixieland cooker, "My Blushing Rosie," the drummer plays excellently, including tasteful soloing. All the tracks share the flaw of sounding like a bunch of really good musicians reading through some stock arrangements. This label seems like a class outfit, at least from the looks of the catalog that is printed on the back cover in lieu of any information on who the musicians might be here. It also seems this is the only such anonymous release on the label, as the others feature artists of the caliber of Pee Wee Russell, Ray Eberle, Lionel Hampton, Mel Tormé, and Dick Haymes. One wonders if this banjo affair was an in-house production and might feature some of these heavyweights, or whether it is a studio banjo player of some importance. It's not bad at all, but who is it?

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