Though still a relatively young man, Ben Krakauer has put together a remarkable career. He’s been a professor and lecturer at a number of prestigious universities. He’s an ethnomusicologist who has studied and written on topics ranging from experimental bluegrass in New York City in the 1970s to the dotara players of West Bengal.
Krakauer is also a gifted composer and accomplished banjo player who has collaborated with David Grisman and Old School Freight Train, among others.
Hidden Animals, his second album, is a sheer delight that explores that rarified territory where bluegrass, jazz and new acoustic music overlap.
If you’re familiar with the music of Joe K. Walsh, Krakauer’s good friend and brother-at-arms, you’ll get an idea of where he’s coming from.
You could easily get the impression that this music is a bit erudite or obscure, but you’d be wrong. For starters, Krakauer’s original instrumental compositions are vividly melodic and rhythmically structured yet also chock-full of soulfulness and emotion. As he explains in the accompanying press material, Krakauer often draws his inspiration from everyday things. The galloping bluegrass-flavored “Dogboy Breakdown” was inspired by a pet dog, as was “And Bertie.” “Mom’s and Dad’s 51st” is about just that, and “Laura’s Tune” is a tribute to his long-time partner.
The resulting compositions and instrumental arrangements are nearly irresistible as they range across various dimensions of moods, emotions and reveries. “On Hold,” for instance, eerily captures what Krakauer describes as “the suspended feeling of pandemic life.” “Gem Music” is a salute to the show “Steven Universe,” which Krakauer says was his personal “oasis” during COVID.
Krakauer and his four gifted collaborators—Ella Jordan on fiddle (or, as specified in the notes, “jazz and bluegrass violin”), Duncan Wickel on cello and fiddle, Dan Klingsberg on bass and Nick Falk on drums—imbue their intricate interplay with a conversational fluidity and expressiveness.
And more than likely, as a listener, you’ll get caught up in these “conversations” too.