“It’s finally here! Millions of fans have clamored for the latest release from global banjo sensation Noam Pikelny, and he’s finally obliged them with the release of Noam Pikelny Plays Noam Pikelny. Oh wait, what? Oops, let’s start again.”
Well, you’ll forgive me if you’ve seen the hilarious promo video that Pikelny, star banjo player with Punch Brothers, has issued to announce his first “true” solo CD, Universal Favorite. The tongue-in-cheek title plays off his skewed sense of humor, satirizing his newfound fame as a recipient of the Steve Martin Prize For Excellence In Banjo and his work with the acclaimed stringband. What’s not ironic or skewed is the quality of Noam’s music here. Perhaps the most technically gifted banjo player alive, Pikelny also possesses an innate sense of melody and musicianship that leverages his unparalleled technical skills to create music on solo banjo (and even electric guitar) that transcends mere technique. Noam’s playing here is the very essence of lyrical, often hypnotically beautiful, fretboard work. Complex, arpeggiated lines swell and fall under his masterful right-hand touch.
Unlike previous records under his own name, Universal Favorite features just Noam, his husky baritone voice, and his unique skills on a variety of stringed instruments including five-string banjo, tenor guitar, Telecaster, and acoustic guitar. It’s a daunting challenge few musicians have had the nerve (or talent) to undertake. But here, as in his previous records under his own name and with Punch Brothers, Pikelny soars. His solo banjo playing here is utterly majestic.
The tunes here range from melodically traditional-sounding tunes, such as “Sugar Maple,” “Redbud,” and “Hen Of The Woods,” to more progressive melodies such as “Bye.” And to keep things from sounding too monotonous, Pikelny spices up his presentation by fingerpicking a resonator instrument and even a Fender Telecaster, always showing the melodic side of his skills.
After his success of recreating the classic Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe record, Noam has zigged when other artists might have stuck to a proven formula and a ready audience. Instead, we get this, a deep glimpse into his musical soul. And while it might not be universally favored by all bluegrass fans, anyone open to new sounds and brilliant playing should find this CD one of their newest favorites. (Rounder Records, One Rounder Way, Burlington, MA 01803, www.rounder.com.)DJM
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