Title: Abigail Washburn and the Sparrow Quartet
Artists: Abigail Washburn (banjo, vocals), Bela Fleck (banjo), Ben Sollee (cello), Casey Driessen (violin/fiddle)
Label: Nettwerk Records
Genre: singer/songwriter, acoustic, newgrass, bluegrass (if you really stretch it)

CD Cover: Abigail Washburn & the Sparrow QuartetI was first introduced to Abigail Washburn by my brother. The two of them have somewhat in common–they both traveled to the Far East (my brother to Mongolia and she to China) and brought with them–of all things–their banjos, and both of them were influenced by the culture they visited. My brother hasn’t recorded a full album yet unfortunately, but Abigail Washburn has cut a few now, and the results have been remarkable. One of these is Abigail Washburn and the Sparrow Quartet, a fascinating mix of bluegrass influence, Mandarin Chinese, semi-jazz, and sheer musical brains. While some may find it a rather strong “brew” (to put it in coffee terms), and while there are a few tracks that I don’t usually listen to, anyone with a penchant for acoustic or Appalachian will find delightfully attractive stuff on this album.

I have to make clear from the start that this is not a bluegrass album–banjos notwithstanding, it’s an entirely different genre, like singer/songwriter. Don’t get me wrong, all the acoustic glory is there, but it’s channeled into a performance that is more refined and harmonically adventurous than any jam session. By the end of the playful (if not quirky) Great Big Wall in China you’ll hear some good old-fashioned fiddling, but not before several minutes’ whirlwind of Puccini quotations and dizzying chromatics on the banjo. And while there are plenty of other gems for the Appalachian in you (Banjo-Pickin’ Girl), I have found that some of my wife’s and my favorite tracks grab us for the sole reason that they are simply beautiful. Several of these are the Chinese songs (A Kazakh Melody or Journey Home), where simple folk tunes, sung by Abigail in Mandarin, ride on accompaniment patterns on the banjos and long lines played by the strings. The effect is nothing like bluegrass–more like what you’d call acoustic–but it’s satisfying and will make you reach for the ‘back’ button more than once.

All that being said, there were a few disappointments on the album for me. And these issues are, IMO, typical of the the circles from which this comes–namely, lyrics that are creative but often to the point of being enigmatic (are we trying too hard here?), and some subject matter that is common enough in folk music, but that I avoid because I can’t endorse it (drinking, etc. in Sugar and Pie). Others, though poignant, struck me as a bit too agressive (Captain) or, well, strange (Strange Things) for me to really latch on to. Yet I have to say that from start to finish every song exudes creativity and freshness. If you play an instrument and are looking for inspiration on what’s possible “outside the box,” look here. So…
Conclusion: Listen on LaLa; or pick-n-choose your tracks on iTunes. If you like acoustic, there’s good stuff here; but if you prefer traditional bluegrass, or you’re just picky like me, you’ll want to listen before you buy.