Lester Koenig loved the sound of a banjo, and regretted its absence from the modern jazz stage. Fortunately, he was in a position to do something about it. The New Orleans Revival in the ‘Forties brought need for banjos; when groups formed on the West Coast (like Lu Watters, or the Firehouse Five) Koenig recorded them on his Good Time Jazz label. Opportunity knocked in 1951: when Harper Goff left the Five, the replacement was studio musician Dick Roberts – a banjo virtuoso. Koenig made an offer, Roberts mentioned his friend Red Roundtree, and the Banjo Kings were born. The mood is light – delicate notes over a heady strum – with a fondness for the old-timey. With feet straddling folk and jazz (a little country, too) some will find this corny, but if you like banjo, you should be dancing. And I bet Koenig was.
The approach they take is consistent. As Roundtree fills (sometimes he parallels, sometimes with a hard push), Roberts goes high with the theme. Together they ring, pleasantly thick over basic rhythm. A sound to make you smile; when Roundtree solos (a nutty tone, with a bit more twang) there’s a hint of the backwoods. It really works on stuff like “Alabamy Bound” the rhythm pounds like clicking rails, with help from the shuffling brush. A sweet taste, and plenty of that back-porch feeling (especially on “Silvery Moon”, where there’s a tap-dance!) Maybe it’s silly, but you can forgive – hear this and you’ll feel you’re among friends.
While most attention is on the Kings, the supporting cast is the cream of the West Coast trad scene. Stan Wrightsman played for Bob Scobey, and two men were Dick’s bandmates in the Firehouse Five. (The most famous, George Bruns, composed for Disney films.) Usually they stay in the background, with some thrilling exceptions. Bruns, on bittery tuba, is great on “Hello! Ma Baby”, a roly-poly solo of great delight. Ray Leatherwood snaps a mighty bass; check him on “Banjo Rag”, one of three originals. The weak link is the tack piano; they want a honky-tonk feel but it sounds like a gimmick. (The second Foster medley has standard piano, and is better for it.) A nice easy group, they let the Kings take charge, and do they ever.
While the main task is sunny nostalgia, I like it when they show some muscle. “Burglar Buck” is a fun scamper, worried notes as banjos make their escape. “Banjo Bounce” is the best original, where big notes contrast with sour plucks. Roberts is splendid, so high he’s a mandolin. Roundtree is great on “Alabamy”, and “Pickin’” is a banjo frenzy, as it sounds like eight hands! It sounds like both strum, with notes sprinkled on top – very tasty.