Review - Sparrow Quartet
The Sparrow Quartet
The Egg, May 30
Ever since Claude Debussy heard a performance of a Javanese gamelan, or cymbal orchestra, at the 1889 Universal Exposition in Paris, and was inspired to compose in a new Impressionist style, musical meetings of the East and West have yielded often striking results. Most recently, old-time banjoist and singer Abigail Washburn’s new, high-powered acoustic group the Sparrow Quartet has blended Chinese folk melodies with elements of Appalachian string-band music and classical music to create a hybrid sound that proved, for the most part, unique and engrossing at a well-attended show at the Egg last Saturday.
the light of two spherical, red silk lanterns, Washburn, wearing a red
ankle-length dress, was accompanied by bluegrass-banjo hero Bela Fleck,
Casey Driessen on the five-string violin, and cellist Ben Sollee. Even
the configuration of instruments was unusual—although the cello was
heard in early string-band music, you rarely if ever see a banjo played
with three-finger technique alongside one plucked in the older
The group opened with “Overture” from their eponymously titled debut CD. As the cello droned away, the other musicians introduced themselves with terse melodic statements. Washburn frailed a lick, Fleck chirped out a riff in parallel fifths to invoke an Oriental mood, and Driessen tossed off a smooth bluegrass phrase or two before he and Sollee played a short interlude reminiscent of chamber music. Although these nebulous echoes and glints of three cultures were intriguing, nothing of substance ever coalesced, and the piece seemed awfully pretentious.
The music went way uphill, though, with a love song from the Chinese province of Sichuan of where Washburn went to school. She sang a traditional pentatonic minor melody in a somewhat breathy soprano while the group provided a string-band type backup. As Fleck, Washburn, and Driessen soloed in turn, their impeccable musicianship signaled that a fine evening of music was in store.
And so it was. Later in the first set, “A Kazakh Melody,” a folk tune from Central Asia set over a lush, gorgeous harmonization by the strings showed off the band’s arranging skills. In “Everybody Does It Now” the foursome changed gears for a hokum blues tune with dazzling breaks from Driessen and Fleck, who is perhaps the most virtuosic three-finger-style banjoist out there.
During the second set, Washburn, a strong and precise singer, delivered superb vocals on Led Zeppelin’s gospel-styled song “Nobody’s Fault But Mine.” In another vein altogether, “Strange Things” was an ominously apt rendition of a 1952 Henry Green song bemoaning a world on an uncertain and dangerous course. The Sparrow Quartet, too, is a strange thing, but a brilliant and original one all the same.
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