Schepps taps classical composers for his bluegrass band
From Bela Fleck’s Grammy-winning “Perpetual Motion” to the Punch Brothers’ twangy take on Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, fans of modern bluegrass have long been familiar with arrangements of classical music for string band. “I think the potential is fantastic,” says banjoist Jake Schepps, “but it’s already been well done by a lot of other musicians. I wanted to further the conversation. To me, the next logical step was to have classically trained composers write for string band.”
The result is “Entwined,” a classically infused bluegrass album featuring music by Marc Mellits, Matthew McBane, Gyan Riley, and Matt Finner that’s rhythmically dynamic, harmonically complex, and has got some serious groove. Coordinating with the album’s release this week, Schepps and his bluegrass quintet — mandolinist Finner, guitarist Jordan Tice, violinist Ryan Drickey, and bassist Andrew Small — bring their mesmerizing musical alchemy to Cambridge’s Club Passim on Monday.
The idea for Entwined grew out of Schepps’s previous album, “Evening in the Village: The Music of Béla Bartok,” which he describes as a personal musical exploration of how a classical composer approached traditional Eastern-European folk music.
“Bartok was one of the world’s first ethnomusicologists,” Schepps explains. “In the early 20th century, he traveled around Hungary and collected folk tunes, and set a lot of them to his own music. I thought it would be interesting to look at a bunch of that, and have it reinterpreted by folk musicians in more of a folk-band setting.”
In a similar vein, he began to wonder how contemporary classical music could be reinterpreted into something novel for the string-band community. That’s when he stumbled upon the work of post-minimalist composer Marc Mellits. “I fell in love with it,” he says. “And rather than rearrange one of his previously written works, I thought it would be exciting to have him write something for banjo, and for this ensemble.”
Once Mellits was on board, Schepps sought out McBane and Riley for the project. Adding a further twist to the concept, he also commissioned a piece from mandolinist Finner. “The premise was to juxtapose somebody from within the string band world, who really understands it, with these classical composers.”
Familiarity with the bluegrass world wasn’t the only advantage that Finner had over the other composers: while primarily performing as a mandolinist, he’s also an award-winning banjo player. “It’s a really, really weird instrument,” he explains. “Having played banjo, I knew how the instrument works.”
“To throw something like a banjo at me was the biggest challenge,” says Mellits about “Flatiron,” his multi-movement work. “I always try to think in terms of idiomatic music — meaning music that’s written for a specific instrument. And never having played banjo, it’s hard for me to write idiomatic music for it. So Jake flew up to Chicago with his banjo and sat in my living room and played for me — and that changed a lot. Just hearing the resonance, and holding it in my hands, and seeing him play it and understanding what he can do really helped.”
To compose his five-movement piece “Drawn,” McBane took an even more hands-on approach to the banjo: He taught himself how to play the instrument. “Banjo is the most foreign instrument to me,” says McBane, who plays violin and has experience with fiddle music. “It has African origins, so it’s sort of a non-European approach to a string instrument. So I wanted to understand the particular physicality of the instrument.”
The challenges proved two-sided. From the Reich-meets-rock ’n’ roll tonalities of “Flatiron,” to the arpeggiated, electronica-inspired sounds of “Drawn” and the rhythmically complex, stylistically diverse “Stumble Smooth” by guitarist-composer Riley, Schepps says that each piece on “Entwined” afforded its own unique set of musical demands not typically encountered in traditional bluegrass playing.
“I certainly learned a lot personally,” says Schepps. “There were plenty of passages in these pieces that I really had to work on just to kind of pull it off. But ultimately, it was more about learning to work together as an ensemble.”
Finner agrees. “There were lots of technical challenges, but the biggest challenge was learning how to play as an ensemble in a way that we never had to do before. Sometimes it was like a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle, with all of us trying to figure out where we fit in.”
While Schepps wants to commission more quintet music, he plans to focus on trios for his next album, which will include his own bluegrass compositions, a work by Henry Purcell, and Brazilian choro music arranged for string band. “It’s an early 20th-century, mandolin-driven tradition that combines jazz harmony with European classical form with super-hip Brazilian percussion,” explains the ever-adventurous banjo player.
“Just another geeky music that has a very tiny market share and takes lots and lots of work to put together,” he adds, laughing, “I seem to be drawn to those.”