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Marc Mellits: Flatiron
Matt McBane: Drawn
Matt Flinner: Migrations
Gyan Riley: Stumble Smooth

Jake Schepps Quintet: Jake Schepps (Banjo), Matt Flinner (Mandolin), Ryan Drickey (Drawn violin), Enion Pelta-Tiller (Violin), Grant Gordy (Flatiron guitar), Ross Martin (Guitar), Eric Thorin (Bass)
Recording: Mountain House Studio, Nederland, Colorado, eTown Studios and Immersive Studio, Boulder, Colorado (December 2012 & 2013/March 2014) – 77’37
Fine Mighty Records #1004 – Booklet in English

Being released later this January, Entwined is an extraordinary and innovative project and, most importantly, it is a genuine pleasure to hear and study. The disc’s premise was to commission contemporary classical composers to write longer-format works for a quintet whose origins are bluegrass, and the four musicians have met this challenge with finesse and imagination. Some might argue that the short length of most sections (or movements, as they’re called in one instance) indicates a lack of intellectual discipline or fuller commitment such as one might expect from ‘classical’ composers and that, ultimately, the works are merely high-brow pop.

I’ll let others thrash out this debate though I will suggest that, given the limits in texture for even the most sophisticated bluegrass five-string band --- and the Jake Schepps Quintet is definitely a formidable ensemble --- it was probably astute for the composers not to attempt to create gigantic symphonies or concertos, at least not the first time around. The music on this CD has a delicacy redolent of a top-notch string quartet or an instrument like the celesta.

The opening work, Marc Mellits’ Flatiron, evokes minimalism and has clear parallels to such composers as Philip Glass, John Adams, Mark Isham, Ryûichi Sakamoto and others. The third movement, “Purfling”, is calm and slightly plaintiff. The next, “F-Hole” --- no explanation for the title is provided --- suggests an Irish jig. “Mahogany”, with its Asian sounding violin suggests some kind of leisurely stroll. “Planetary Turners” has a decidedly new-age feel while the finale, “Dreadnought” is aggressive and more bass heavy.

Matt McBane’s Drawn starts with a movement titled “Flourish”, which builds tension with constantly ascending key changes, and also hints at an Asian vibe. The continuing “Interlude” is dry and spare, while the third movement “Entwined” (which provides the CD’s title) grows organically from almost random fragments. “Repose” presents a lyrical violin solo over alternating mandolin, guitar and banjo accompaniment. The finale, “Ground”, initiates with a descending scale melody over ever-complex accompaniment, then the violin reappears and, once again, ascending modulations create suspense until the work concludes.

A more low key Asian mood starts Matt Flinner’s Migrations, whose four movements do not have titles. The third of these is notable for its plucked melody over a smoothly ambient instrumental combo, while the final one embellishes on a simple melody played by several instruments in unison, evolving to a possible Celtic or Scottish theme.

The final single-movement work is Gyan Riley’s Stumble Smooth. A faux percussion opening ushers fragments which soon build to a series of climaxes. A distant violin melody grows and develops quite lyrically, then tension develops and the work comes to – literally – a buzzing conclusion.

The music on Entwined is creative in academic terms, though also is highly atmospheric and a crack film or TV director could put it to good use. Indeed, it’s salutary to remember that Earl Scruggs who pioneered bluegrass back in 1945 is best remembered today for scoring Bonnie and Clyde and The Beverly Hillbillies. (I could also imagine collaboration with pop vocalists like Sting or Paul Simon, or with jazz trumpeter Chris Botti.)

Entwined is a rare CD which offers something substantial for people who enjoy fine music in any genre, and I won’t be surprised if it achieves breakthrough popularity.

Charles Pope Jr.




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