(Self-released, CD, Digital Download)
In addition to being a professor of sociology and criminal justice at SUNY Plattsburgh, Steve Light is also a respected scholar of banjo-ology. Light has mastered his art exploring the musical outer limits of the five-string banjo. He ventures far beyond the popular bluegrass style pioneered by Earl Scruggs while still paying homage to that sparkling, original sound. On his first “solo” CD, Banjo and Friends: Instrumental Duets, Light joins forces with bandmates past and present from the Bluegrass Gospel Project and the Modern Grass Quintet. He also tabs Clinton County, N.Y., dobro master Junior Barber and ace bluegrass mandolinist Fred Lantz to make music with a rich sonic palette.
Considering that his specialty is an instrument that can seem eternally wedded to the 2-minute-40-second “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” Light serves up an impressive variety of sounds. There’s Paul Desmond’s “Take Five” — one of the only tracks on the CD where the second musician is also Steve Light! There are old-time fiddle tunes (“Turkey in the Straw,” “Beaumont Rag,” “Arkansas Traveler”), Irish dance tunes (“Dick Gossip-SilverSpear”), bluegrass classics (“Lonesome Road Blues”) and even the Paul McCartney-penned “I Will.”
The three duets with Lantz are particularly successful. Light and Lantz sound as if they have been playing together forever, and the tonal quality of their respective instruments — Light on regular five-string and cello banjo, Lantz on mandolin and mandocello — really complement each other. Barber’s musicality is another of the pleasures on this disc. The dobro ace has been playing around the Plattsburgh area for years, as a soloist and as a member of a swinging trio called Beartracks. Barber’s duet with Light on “Sitting On Top of the World” features both smooth and sassy playing by both musicians.
Skip Smithson handled recording and dial work for Banjo and Friends at the Addition Studio in Keeseville, N.Y. Smithson was clearly a good choice; the result is a disc full of acoustic music that sounds “just like itself.” In other words, it’s as if the musicians are right there in the room with you.
The sound is great, the playing impeccable. What more could you ask for?
Banjo and Friends (Instrumental Duets) by Steve Light is available at Amazon.com.