Alison Brown (Courtesy of Compass Records site, 2005).
Banjo virtuoso Alison Brown has been a busy woman.
In addition to running what Billboard Magazine calls “one of the greatest independent labels of the last decade” and releasing three critically-acclaimed albums including the 2001 Grammy-winner Fair Weather, she has maintained an international touring schedule, playing over 60 dates a year in the US and abroad. “We [Brown and husband/bass player/label co-founder Garry West] used to think it was difficult to find time for writing music when we were just touring and running the record company, but since my daughter Hannah came along, I’ve been amazed at how often my hands are occupied with everyday chores – cooking, straightening up, changing diapers.…It’s been a challenge to carve out a place for my own music in the midst of everything.”
The title of Brown’s May 10 release, Stolen Moments, is a nod to the task of balancing work and parenthood with her own creativity. “We were literally stealing moments in between everything else,” she said of both the writing and recording of the CD. “We would do a take, then run down to the office and answer emails or make sure the three o’clock babysitter had shown up before the morning babysitter left.
Yet the fluid musicality and genre-blending acoustic underpinnings of Stolen Moments hardly hint at these challenges. In Brown’s estimation, it’s her most musically successful record to date. “For the first time, I feel like I’ve created a true hybrid sound that suggests its influences – bluegrass, jazz, celtic music – but when taken as a whole isn’t any one of these things. It may not be easy to put a label on it, but that’s fine with me since that’s the musical world I live in as a musician and with Compass Records. To my ear, Stolen Moments comes off as a very accessible and listenable record with a consistent sound from track to track.”
Anchored by Brown’s technically rich and highly musical banjo, instrumental tracks range from the odd meter newgrass hoedown of The Magnificent Seven to the more delicate jazz-hued sensibility of The Pirate Queen and the Gregorian chant-inspired Carrowkeel. Brown’s choice of instrumentalists is another nod to the breadth of her musical aesthetic. Playmates include bluegrass greats Sam Bush (mandolin) and Stuart Duncan (fiddle) as well as Irish mavericks John Doyle (guitar) and Seamus Egan (flute), ex-Prentenders and Paul McCartney Band guitarist Robbie McIntosh and long time bandmate John R. Burr (piano).
Brown also features an all-female cast of vocalists on four of the album’s tracks. The Indigo Girls, with whom Brown has performed live, guest on one of her recordings for the first time. “I have such great respect for them both as musicians and as people,” Brown says of the duo, “and I thought it would be fun to come up with a neo-bluegrass arrangement of Homeward Bound – a classic duet - to record with them.” Compass labelmate Beth Nielsen Chapman, whom Brown describes as one of her all time favorite singers, delivers a delicate version of the Jimi Hendrix’s classic Angel, with Brown’s banjo taking on an almost harp-like quality. Mary Chapin Carpenter and Andrea Zonn are both Brown’s co-conspirators from the Boomchicks, an in-your-face all-female group formed for the Telluride Bluegrass festival four years ago. “The Boomchicks are such a unique bunch and I thought the Boo Hewerine song Prayer Wheel would be a great vehicle for Chapin’s singing and everyone’s playing – as well as having the right vibe for a band that came together in the Colorado mountains.” Finally, fiddler/vocalist Andrea Zonn, who tours regularly as a featured guest with the Alison Brown Quartet, offers a sweet version of the folk classic One Morning in May, artfully arranged to feature John Doyle and Brown’s twin guitars stylings.
Much as Brown’s own music is an acoustic hybrid that draws from a myriad of influences, the Compass Records roster is a growing tapestry of musical diversity. Celebrating its tenth anniversary in 2005 and with a catalog of nearly 200 releases, the label boasts an identifiable sound and level of industry respect unusual for such a young company. Releases from Irish instrumental giants Lunasa share shelf space in the Compass warehouse alongside the latest from former Squeeze frontman Glenn Tilbrook; England’s folk songstress Kate Rusby’s 4 solo releases are comfortable stacked next to the jazz/jamgrass releases from Flecktones’ bassist Victor Wooten and saxman Jeff Coffin. “When Garry and I started the label ten years ago on the dining room table, we could only dream of having the likes of Beth Nielsen Chapman or Paul Brady on the roster,” Brown said. “Now, a decade later, both Beth and Paul are releasing records on Compass in the first half of this year. It’s been a lot of hard work to get to this point, but it’s still quite amazing to see our dreams and ideas realized.”
Alison Brown began her music career at a young age, playing banjo in several Southern California bands alongside fiddler Stuart Duncan as a teenager. After graduating from high school, bluegrass took a back seat while Brown attended Harvard University, earned an MBA, and worked as an investment banker. Following successful tours with both Alison Krauss and Michelle Shocked, a Grammy-nomination for her first solo effort Simple Pleasures and the Banjo Player of the Year award from the International Bluegrass Music Association, Brown put her business skills to work, founding Compass Records in 1995 with her husband Garry West. Brown’s discography includes 5 releases on Vanguard Records as well as 4 on Compass Records. Brown tours internationally with the Alison Brown Quartet, has been a guest speaker at Harvard Business School, Dartmouth’s Amos Tuck School and the University of Colorado Boulder, and currently serves as an Adjunct Professor at Vanderbilt University’s Blair School of Music.
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