Plucky Chick Brings Home The Banjo


Village News — April 12, 2000

With easy understated wit, banjo player Alison Brown told her audience that, after graduating La Jolla High School and earning degrees at Harvard and UCLA, she had been building a career as an investment banker until an epiphany led her to quit her job with Salomon Smith Barney and to spend her days at home writing music.

"I discovered was that thereıs a lot of great television on during the day," she said. Sitcoms such as "I Dream of Jeannie" may have brought some of the chirpy jauntiness to her strong compositions such as "Red Balloon" and "Danteıs Paradise" featured early in her concert at the Athenaeum Music & Arts Library, 1008 Wall Street, on February 10.

Although the banjo may be a familiar instrument in Dixieland groups and even some swing bands, Brown crafts an unlikely fusion of bluegrass with authentic hard bop. Astoundingly, it works ‹ although sometimes it may invoke a mental picture of a clucking chicken set loose in a high-end jazz venue by some hillbilly with a grudge.

A specially designed electric banjo with nylon strings enables Brown to produce a clear ringing tone so reminiscent of Pat Methenyıs synthesized guitar that at least one easy listening station with a strict no-banjo rule was tricked into including her latest CD, "Out of the Blue" on its play list.

John R. Burrıs piano playing is studied and yet playful with something of Vince Guaraldi about it, and this somehow enables the banjo synergy to work well. As Brown put it, "Piano and banjo are natural allies, even in the wild."

Brown explained that Burr had needed painkillers for severe back pain while working with her on the Russian-esque duet he waggishly entitled "Without Anastasia."

Joking about her La Jolla childhood she said, "My friends were surfers and surfer chicks. I, of course, was a banjo picker ‹ very unpopular."

Now her home is in Nashville with husband Garry West who plays bass in the quartet and produces CDs for their Compass label. But in her introduction to a mellow acoustic bossa nova entitled "Coast Walk" she said she still misses walking beside the Ocean by La Jollaıs eucalyptus trees and sage bushes.

Brown proudly related that a woman wrote her to say she listens to an Alison Brown CD at her work. It turned out that the fan was astronaut Marsha Ivins and work was the space shuttle. The story served to introduce a track entitled "My Favorite Marsha," that was chosen by NASA for wake-up music on a subsequent mission.

Given that the quartetıs schedule demands a lot of traveling, every newly devised instrument adds significantly to the logistical problems of the bandıs earthly travels. The Athenaeum date immediately followed an engagement at the Celtic Connection Festival in Glasgow.

A TV production company had commissioned Brown to record "The Wonderful Sea Voyage (of Holy St. Brendan" in an old church. Brown said this new age banjo opus was inspired by the eponymous monk, who in 550, sailed from Ireland to Newfoundland with 14 men in a leather boat. Brown noted wryly, "For some reason the story really spoke to me."

The spring series of jazz concerts organized by the Athenaeum Music & Arts Library continues at 8 p.m. on Sunday April 30 at the Neurosciences Institute at 10640 John Jay Hopkins Drive, La Jolla, with tenor saxophonist Charles Lloydıs quartet featuring Billy Higgins (drums), John Abercrombie (guitar) and Darek Oles (bass).

Admission is $19 for members and $22 non-members. Call 858-454-5872 to join the waiting list for cancellations.