About 100 years ago, Béla Bartók was traipsing through his native Hungary (Romania and Slovakia, too) with a bulky Edison phonograph, documenting folk songs and dances. There's a priceless photo of the young composer, his contraption perched on an outside windowsill with a woman singing into the horn while anxious villagers stare at the camera. By 1918, Bartók had amassed almost 9,000 folk tunes. He made transcriptions of some; others he arranged for piano, while elements of still others found their way into his orchestra pieces and chamber music.
This was the country music of Eastern Europe, and its off-kilter rhythms and pungent melodies continue to captivate music lovers and musicians like Colorado-based banjo player Jake Schepps, who has recorded an entire album of Bartok's folk-inspired music.
With fellow members of Expedition Quartet — violinist Enion Pelta-Tiller, guitarist Grant Gordy and bass player Ian Hutchison — Schepps wedged behind Bob Boilen's desk for a Bartók hoe-down of sorts. Bartók's music provides the bedrock, but Schepps and company slip away for jazzy solos and off-the-cuff tangents. It's an intriguing goulash of bluegrass, Bartók and bebop.
You never quite know where Schepps will go with his banjo: He's equally thoughtful and witty. Note the delicate filigree in the well-known "Stick Dance." His glue holds the band together, but he's careful not to hog the limelight, leaving ample room for riffing from Gordy and Pelta-Tiller. It's especially effective in their final tune, a mashup of Bartók's Mikrokosmos No. 78 and a red-hot performance of the traditional fiddle tune "Cousin Sally Brown."
Schepps is continuing in a long line of musicians who effortlessly meet at the intersection of classical and folk music. Bartók would heartily approve.
- Bartók (arr. Flinner): Romanian Folk Dances – "Stick Game"
- Bartók (arr. Schepps): For Children (Hungarian Folk Tunes) – "Stars, Stars Brightly Shine"
- Bartók / traditional (arr. Schepps): Mikrokosmos No. 78 / "Cousin Sally Brown"
- Jake Schepps, banjo
- Grant Gordy, guitar
- Ian Hutchison, bass
- Enion Pelta-Tiller, violin
Producer: Tom Huizenga; Videographer and Editor: Michael Katzif; Audio Engineer: Kevin Wait; photo by Cristina M. Fletes.