Banjo player and band keep close to melody


POSTED: Friday, April 03, 2009

A true multitasker, Alison Brown is equally adept playing the five-string banjo and crunching numbers.





        with Joe Craven

» 7:30 p.m. Friday: Paliku Theatre, Windward Community College, with opening act Saloon Pilots and special guest Barbara Higbie. Tickets $25; $20 students, seniors, military and University of Hawaii faculty/staff; and $15 UH students and youth 8 to 17. Call 944-2697 or visit


» 7:30 p.m. Saturday: UH-Hilo Performing Arts Center. Tickets $35, $30 discount, and $15 UH students and children. Call (808) 974-7310 or visit


» 7 p.m. Sunday: Kauai Community College Performing Arts Center. Tickets $35 and $10 students. Call (808) 245-7464 or visit


» 7:30 p.m. Wednesday: McCoy Studio Theatre, Maui Arts & Cultural Center. Tickets $30. Call (808) 242-7469 or visit




When the musician is not on the road performing 50 or 60 concerts with her band, she's in her Nashville, Tenn., office of Compass Records, a label she co-founded with her husband Garry West—who just so happens to be her bassist as well. It's no surprise that Brown, a former investment banker with Smith Barney, takes care of the financial concerns of the successful independent record label that specializes in Americana/bluegrass music as well as traditional Celtic and British music.

But she'll find time to make her Hawaii debut this weekend with four interisland concerts.

Considering the care that she takes surrounding herself with the best people in music and business, it's no surprise that Brown's latest instrumental album is titled “;The Company You Keep.”;

It's music that can be categorized as chamber bluegrass jazz. Supported by West and drummer Larry Atamanuik, Brown and pianist John R. Burr spin spry melodic lines that are entrancing. Equally important in Brown's musical mix is fiddler and mandolinist Joe Craven, who regularly comes along as a guest on her tours.

“;Fans in acoustic music circles know about Joe because of his noteworthy contribution to the David Grisman Quartet for 17 years,”; said Brown on Monday from her office.

When regarding the banjo, most people are familiar with the work of Bela Fleck, who's been a regular visitor to the islands. Asked about the difference in approach between herself and Fleck, Brown said that “;as a band, we're more melodically oriented, more closely rooted to bluegrass and the popular musics of the 1950s and 1960s.”;




        Compass Records





BROWN UNDERSTANDS comparisons of her band's sound and that of the earlier years of the Pat Metheny Group, where the interplay between Metheny and keyboardist Lyle Mays is similar to Brown and Burr's sympathetic combination.

“;That's true. Like Pat Metheny's band, we never stray far from the melody. I don't have a band with young guys offering up technical flash. We want to be as accessible as possible to a broad, intergenerational audience. It's easier to get into and less 'heady' in approach.

“;Our music is maybe a little more composed, more in a box,”; she said. “;I like to make music that sounds pretty. I want to do for the banjo what James Taylor does—I like how his sounds go together, music that you can put on any time of the day. It's just such beautiful, perfect music, and I want to make our sound as warm and friendly as his.”;

And Brown accomplishes that, a challenge considering her three-finger picking style on an instrument that's never been known for a sustained ringing sound. You can hear it on such album tracks as “;The Road West,”; the only cover tune by Martin O'Connor, one of the more accomplished piano/accordian players in Ireland, and the slower “;Drawing Down the Moon,”; “;which is about as lyrical as a banjo can be,”; she said.

The experience of Brown and the band in concert is especially enriched with the additional presence of Craven. It was his idea to bring a Caribbean groove to the traditional bluegrass medley newly titled “;Forky on the Water,”; and the strong swing feel he brings to “;The Clean Plate Club.”;

“;I especially wanted him on this tour because he's an integral part of the new record, which was meant to highlight the touring band and bringing all of them to the forefront,”; she said.