- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 4, 2006

There’s a place where bluegrass, folk, blues and jazz converge in a swirling music. It’s called Americana, and it’s a place where instruments and voices weave textured, organic sounds rooted in a melange of cultures, where tradition meets musical innovation.

This kind of music defies traditional categories and, rather than pander to the expectations of genre fans, challenges listeners to expand their musical horizons. Here are three distinct projects involving performers stretching to reach new places within the parameters of traditional music.

Jim VanCleve, “No Apologies” — Jim VanCleve plays fiddle for the bluegrass band Mountain Heart, which has piled up an array of International Bluegrass Music Association awards since it was named emerging band of the year in 1999. In his first solo effort, Mr. VanCleve teams up with all his band mates as well as with extraordinary guitarist Bryan Sutton and vocalist Sonya Isaacs.

Mr. VanCleve wrote or co-wrote six of the 11 tracks — four of the five instrumentals, all of them exciting. He crosses and re-crosses the jazz/bluegrass line, especially when guitarists Clay Jones and Mr. Sutton trade licks on “Highlands,” one of the outstanding instrumentals.

The second track, “Let the Big Dog Eat,” is pop bluegrass, pure and simple.

The penultimate track, “Scars,” written by John Paul White and Steve McEwan, sends the disc reeling in a different direction altogether. With inspired vocals from Ms. Issacs, lush strings and piano, this beautiful country ballad is sandwiched between Bill Monroe’s grassy instrumental, “Wheel Hoss,” and a recklessly fast Rudy Rakes tune, “Train.” (Rural Rhythm)

Darol Anger, “Generation Nation” — Fiddler Darol Anger has put together an intergenerational string quintet here, Republic of Strings, complemented by four different female vocalists interspersed among some amazing instrumentals on a dozen tracks. Band members range from 14 to 52 years old.

Figuring heavily in the mix is cellist Rushad Eggleston. He wrote a track, “In the Basement,” that features the soft, sensual singing of Aoife O’Donovan, with whom he performs in the New England-based old-time band Crooked Still. Mr. Eggleston plays fiddle themes on the cello, doubling melody lines with Mr. Anger and five-string fiddler Brittany Haas in the old-time tradition. The strings swirl around the contributions of guitarist Scott Nygaard, who adds licks sometimes reminiscent of George Benson to the mix.

Mr. Anger successfully juxtaposes traditional and pop music. One surprising cover is the Don Covay rhythm and blues song “Chain of Fools,” soulfully sung by Chris Webster.

Even the attributable old-time compositions on this disc, such as “The Rambling Barber” by fiddler Ornette Coleman, weave together traditional musical themes.

The group covers Buffalo Springfield’s “Bluebird,” a song which served as a musical touchstone melding traditional and pop music some 40 years ago.

A stretch? Yes. Yet it works. (Compass)

Kieran Kane, Kevin Welch and Fats Kaplin, “Lost John Dean” — Incorporating banjo and accordion, this trio serves up more traditional sounds on “Lost John Dean.” Much of this guitar-based music, however, has a swampier, bluesy feel, like it tumbled onto the street from a smoky nightclub.

Mr. Welch wrote or co-wrote five of the original songs; Mr. Kane penned three.

The title track is a remake of an old country blues song sometimes called “Kentucky Blues,” but also known as “Lost John.” Merle Travis recorded the song, as did “Little Hat” Jones. His version, recorded on Okeh Records June 14, 1930, is one of only 10 tracks Mr. Jones ever recorded as a solo artist. It’s not an obscure song, but it is an interesting choice.

The trio closes with a cover of Chicago blues bassist Willie Dixon’s tune, “Mellow Down Easy.”

In between are captivating songs spiked with images of good and evil, gamblers, guns, despair and resurrection. (Compass)

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