- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Alison Brown brings an unexpected elegance to the five-string banjo, easily melding its rootsy sound into jazz, pop, Celtic and folk as well as the bluegrass music where its tone is most familiar.

She has built an acoustic jazz quartet around the banjo, including pianist John R. Burr and her husband, bassist Garry West, who is also the co-founder of Compass Records. Currently on percussion is Fairfax native David Heyer, an impressive drummer with the gentle touch needed to accompany acoustic instruments.

With the addition of spellbinding Boston vocalist Aoife O’Donovan and fiddle and mandolin wizard Joe Craven, a veteran of the David Grisman Quintet, Ms. Brown began December with a two-week Eastern tour featuring music from her label’s two seasonal discs, the 2003 “A Winter’s Eve” compilation and this year’s “A Christmas Heritage,” from the New Grange band.

The 2005 “Winter’s Eve” tour closed at George Mason University Center for the Arts in Fairfax on Friday evening.

The program of slightly more than two hours combined original songs with traditional favorites, often woven together in creative ways. The tight quintet bounced through instrumentals such as “Carol of the Kings,” a medley of “Carol of the Bells” and “We Three Kings,” with a few bars from “Good King Wenceslas” tossed in for good measure.

Mr. Craven, the evening’s comic foil, contributed a hot version of Django Reinhardt’s “Hungaria” on mandolin.

Miss O’Donovan had the audience hanging on each note when she sang Isaac Watts’ hushed “Cradle Hymn,” for which the instrumental break veered through “Shady Grove” for several measures. She also added an evocative version of “In the Bleak Midwinter.” Ms. Brown brought her darling 3-year-old daughter Hannah to the stage to sing “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” in a reminder that the Christmas season is truly about children.

And, in one of the evening’s highlights, the band tore through Ms. Brown’s Celtic medley, “I’m Naked and I’m Going to Glasgow,” a melange of four jigs merged with seasonal solos that included Mr. Burr twinkling through “Gloria in Excelsis Deo” on the piano.

Mr. Craven’s fiddle solo gave us a hint of what was on his mind when he played a snippet of “Little Drummer Boy” before kneeling at Ms. Brown’s feet to play her banjo head like a set of bongos while she picked out “Deck the Halls.” The evening also included a medley from what Ms. Brown called the “Jewish and Hillbilly” traditions, “Shalom Aleichem” and “Breaking Up Christmas,” before closing with a rousing version of “Sleigh Ride” and an encore of “Auld Lang Syne.”

Ms. Brown’s mastery of the banjo made this “Winter’s Eve” delightful. Her group’s seemingly disparate blend of jazz, pop, Celtic and bluegrass works exceptionally well with seasonal music because the themes are so familiar, particularly now when the selections and talent of the performers are as breathtaking as a winter storm.

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