Pete Wernick

I Tell You What

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Although Pete Wernick has the dubious distinction of introducing the phase-shifted banjo to the world in the 1970s, his restless drive to pull different strands of American music together is an impressive one, and this 1996 debut of his Live Five band makes the improbable -- in this case, combining Dixieland jazz with bluegrass, all with an old-time string band sensibility-seem as natural as rain on a cloudy day. Wernick calls this music "flexigrass," and flexible it is, merging genres effortlessly on a set of bluegrass covers (including Flatt & Scruggs' "Dear Old Dixie," Bob Wills' "Jobob Rag," and Ralph Stanley's "Daybreak in Dixie") and sprightly originals, most notably the delightful "D-Funk" and the fluid "Plain and Fancy." But the most striking track on I Tell You What is a version of the old Appalachian fiddle tune called "June Apple." Here Wernick and the Live Five come closest to the old string band tradition, albeit with clarinet replacing fiddle and vibraphone replacing guitar. The song retains the danceable frenzy of the old fiddle version, but Bill Pontarelli's clarinet playing gives it a newfound elegance, all without destroying the traditional feel. In the end "June Apple" doesn't sound like a deconstruction of a folk tune so much as an obvious evolution of it. Bluegrass purists have grumbled about this kind of stuff for years, but bluegrass itself was a fairly recent and deliberate blending of western swing with the old-timey mountain styles, and if Wernick and company want to move forward from there, well, water flows downhill and trees reach for the sky. And this version of "June Apple" seems obvious as rain once you hear it.

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