Wednesday, September 19, 2012

CD REVIEW - Byron Berline - Jammin' With Byron

By Dan King

Byron Berline - Jammin' With Byron

Double Stop Music

Released: August, 2012

Byron Berline loves to play the fiddle. You can tell. There is a contagious energy that comes off his strings when he is bowing that sounds simultaneously athletic and poetic. Witness the impressive display of fiddle gymnastics that starts on the first tune of his new CD, “Jammin’ With Byron” and continues all the way through the 22nd and final track.

Twenty-two tunes would amount to an entire recording career for some musicians, but Byron and his large band of fine picking friends have compiled that many on this one single CD. It is a project that seems destined to become a textbook on old-time fiddle playing for generations to come.

Byron Berline has long been recognized as one of the première fiddlers in the land. Back in the mid-sixties, he caught the attention of Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass. Monroe was so taken by the aforementioned energy that he invited Byron to join his band. But Byron was a young man then with his own agenda and a strong conviction to see it through. The offer from Monroe had to be tabled in order to allow Byron time to finish his formal education.

A few years later with his teaching degree firmly in hand, Byron took Monroe up on the offer and joined the Bluegrass Boys. The collaboration was to be short-lived however, as the United States Army had a completely different gig in mind for the young fiddler. Upon completion of his service to his country, Berline forged a long and storied career in the music business by playing on countless relevant recordings of the day, appearing in concert with major acts, and winning awards both as a solo performer and as a member of the band “California.”

Recorded and mixed at Byron’s Double Stop Fiddle Shop in Guthrie Oklahoma, "Jammin’ With Byron” sounds like what it is; a bunch of friends getting together and recording some tunes for the fun of it. This “jam” is not a free for all. Byron and associates have taken the time to work out arrangements for the songs with twin and harmony lines of melodies, and structures in the traditional ABA style. The result is a nice neat package with lots of fine picking and improvisational wizardry. Ten of the 22 songs contained here are Berline compositions and all the tracks are instrumentals.

The core band on “Jammin’ With Byron” includes Berline on fiddle and mandolin, Greg Burgess on fiddle and guitar, Jim Fish on guitar, and John Hickman on banjo. All in all, seventeen musicians appear on various tunes on the recording, with wife Betty Berline showing up on keyboards on four of them. All the musicians are top flite, leading to a plethora of well-played and energetic bluegrass and Celtic music.

The only down side I can see to this work is that almost all the tunes are mid-tempo songs. With twenty-two tracks from start to finish, a few nice romantic melodies mixed with three or four barn burners would have made the recording a bit easier to digest in a single sitting. Also, some of the tuning is suspect here and there, but mind you, it IS basically a live studio recording. These musicians recorded 15 tunes in one night for this CD! Heck, many bands will run through just one song 15 times to try to get it right, and still have to punch in parts that are out of tune, out of time, or just not played very well. These guys (and gal) are still way ahead of the curve in that regard.

All in all, ”Jammin’ With Byron” is an interesting must-have CD for fiddle aficionados and musicologists alike, as well as a nice teaching tool for aspiring players. It is a fitting contribution from a prolific fiddler who started out to be a teacher in the first place. But you don’t need an ulterior motive like studying the fiddle to enjoy this music. Even a casual listen is sure to perk up your day.

I must say that the cover of this CD is my odds on favorite to win the CD Cover of the Year Award. For the music, I am awarding “Jammin’ With Byron” four and a half banjo strings along with a whole lot of respect for the man, the myth, Byron Berline.

As more than one client must have said to him throughout his career, “Nicely played sir.”


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