Banjoist Noam Pikelny's new album, Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe, isn't your typical standards collection. In fact, it started out as a joke with mandolinist Ronnie McCoury, who ended up playing on the album.
"I texted Ronnie McCoury a few years ago asking him if I could get away with calling an album Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe," he says. "Really just as a joke. But that was kinda somewhere in the back of my memory, and over the last few years, I've been spending more time listening to and playing bluegrass. I was on a real bluegrass kick last year."
The classic bluegrass fiddle album Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe had been on Pikelny's radar since he was kid growing up in Chicago. He picked up the banjo when he was about 8 years old, he says, and was immediately drawn to the jazz-like style of Bela Fleck and the Flecktones. But when someone suggested he go back to the basics of traditional bluegrass banjo playing with Earl Scruggs, Pikelny says he fell in love with the old-fashioned stuff.
"The technical precision and the sheer emotion that comes out in the greatest of the bluegrass instrumentals—that's the essence of bluegrass, that you have people who are playing something virtuosically that is, at the same time, very raw and full of emotion," he says.
In high school, he picked up the original Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe album from 1976, on which Monroe's long-time fiddle player laid down now-standard versions of some of his band leader's songs. Pikelny says it was "the perfect entrée" to Monroe's incredibly vast catalog and gave him an opportunity to appreciate Baker's signature spin on the classic songs.
"It was such a convenient way to hear all these classic instrumentals in one place, but to also hear them as displayed by Kenny Baker, who is this legendary fiddle player, who has this signature sound and brought so much to these tunes," he says.
As Pikelny was figuring out his schedule for 2013, he realized the early part of the year would be the perfect time to record a follow-up to his 2011 album Beat the Devil and Carry a Rail. And it made sense to him that it would be a bluegrass album. It was what he'd been listening to and playing. And that's when the joke with McCoury came back to him. Though most jazz and bluegrass musicians record standards albums early in their careers, Pikelny says the idea of putting a new spin on Kenny Baker Plays stuck with him.
"I didn't know exactly the best way to start," he says. "Rather than just putting my favorite tunes into one collection, how could I actually add to the bluegrass lexicon? How do I make this something that's uniquely personal and something new, rather than just a restatement of something that has been done before, or an album of bluegrass standards you may prefer hearing from one of the great bluegrass banjo players?"
But first he had to figure out how to play songs written for the fiddle on a banjo.
"The banjo is an interesting instrument, and a lot of music doesn't fit very nicely or easily on the instrument because it's tuned in a special way, and you have to cover the entire neck of the instrument to be able to have the same reach a fiddle player or a guitar player would have without even moving their left hand," he says.
With a little assistance from some music notation software, Pikelny had to write out every note Baker plays on the original tribute album. Then he had to actually play it.
"On the banjo, you could find [one] note in three or four places, and your decision where to actually play it depends on what came before it, and what's coming up next, and the sound you're looking to get," he says. "But I didn't want this to be just a technical show-piece. I wanted to turn it into actual music on the instrument. I wanted to be able to play with emotion and not be bogged down with the fact that it sounded difficult. And that's an instrumentalist's duty, regardless of what style of music or what type of piece they're playing—to not let the challenge of it become the focus of it."
Pikelny also credits his work the with Punch Brothers with making the new album work. The Chris Thile-led band has tackled pieces from way, way outside their typical pop-bluegrass range, and the banjoist says playing Radiohead covers and classical concertos live was excellent experience for tackling music not originally written with the banjo in mind.
"What was interesting was I was placing music on the banjo for this record, kind of using this style that I've assumed over the last decade, but it was with very familiar music," he says. "So the juxtaposition of this new approach in the setting of very familiar music is one of the things that's kind of rewarding for this record."