Maybe this is what Bela Fleck would sound like as an unknown playing coffee houses, jamming with other struggling musicians and trying out various unusual ideas designed to get noticed.
Eric Holle’s “Banjo Rebop” is something akin to a redneck Flecktones album, which in this case is a compliment. A resident of the tiny artist-oriented town of Haines, Alaska, his biggest moment in the limelight to date might be National Public Radio’s selection of a song from this disc as part of its online “Open Mike” series (readers rated it 3.187 out of 5). The album itself is a case of the sum exceeding its parts, with solid but seldom spectacular individual performances blending into a diverse musical portrait that is a consistent pleasure.
Holle starts the album putting listeners into comfortable territory with a couple of well-known standards, “Minor Swing” and “After You’ve Gone.” Both come off solidly enough as he fills his solo space with a rapid-fire jazz/bluegrass hybrid strum found throughout the album, which always flows smoothly even if there are few standout individual passages. Violinist Gillies Apap—perhaps the strongest sideman on the album—provides a soothing textural supplement on the opener and saxophonist Wayne Norlund’s tone on the second track gives its an authentic old-time feel. Chollette Cosa contributes vocals on the latter track to pretty much a neutral effect—never feeling like they get in the way but not elevating things beyond what the instrumentalists are doing.
Just a look at the album’s song titles, such as “Struttin’ With The Cannibal Cows” and “Bad Cop, No Donut!” (“True story, with a happy ending,” the linear notes claim), indicates Holle isn’t going to stay the traditional mode for long. His original “Smells Like Money” as the third track (“Tourists, FBI agents or Extraterrestrials?”) feels like an avant-garde take on a 1940s movie soundtrack with Holle delivering the unusual lyrics with swinging style and Jon Hanson providing a well-toned if somewhat imprecise trumpet solo.
The remainder of the album switches between originals and standards in similar style. The amusing tale of “Bad Cop” amusing tale is strictly folk, for example, while the following “Airmail Special” swifts into serious modern bebop that finds all of the players making some of their strongest contributions. He ends with a seductive interpretation of “Autumn Leaves” and some substantial interaction with Apap and Norlund, with the only possible drawback being the low-key taste left in the listener’s mouth after some of the album’s other up-tempo romps.
A comparison with Fleck is perhaps inevitable for a banjo player wandering into the jazz arena, and Holle in general holds up remarkably well on this album. His work is more eclectic and has more of a small-town folk feel than Fleck’s adventures with big-name artists and larger ensemble performances—hardly a surprise, given their respective settings—but fans of either are likely to find satisfaction in both efforts.
The album can be purchased for $17, including shipping, from Capitol Records by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org , or by mail at 118 Seward Street, Juneau, AK 99801.
Personnel: Eric Holle, five-string banjo, vocals; Gilles Apap, violin; Jon Hanson, trumpet; Lee Hacker, drums, percussion; Collette
Cosa, vocals; Albert McDonnell, acoustic and electric bass guitars; Wayne Norlund, tenor and soprano