4 stars (out of 5)
One night in the early years of this century I sat in a hotel suite in the Galt House in Louisville and heard some of the most beautiful music I’d ever heard coming from a slight, and slightly shy, young man and his banjo.
It was an informal showcase by Benji Flaming, of Minnesota and now of the band Monroe Crossing, at the World of Bluegrass week held by the International Bluegrass Music Association, and the clear, smooth sounds he made were worlds away from the raucous bluegrass party going on in the halls and rooms all around us.
Thankfully, the atmosphere around IMBA was and still is conducive to other forms of music that are sometimes only tangentially connected to that pioneered by Bill Monroe and his disciples.
After Flaming’s showcase, I immediately asked him where I could get a CD of his playing. I’m glad to say that that CD is finally here.
Flaming’s approach is simple: take a simple musical idea on the banjo and work it into a miniature tonal landscape within the space of two or three minutes. Never flashy or overwrought, these 13 tracks clock in at a satisfying 33 minutes.
“Northern Sunrise” evokes a misty Minnesota morning and serves as a hopeful album opener. “The Glass Coffin” is an “uncheerful waltz” in the words of Flaming’s short, but charming, liner notes that reveals a bit of spookiness if you listen closely.
“The Golden Key,” “High Above the Hills,” “Spring Rain” and “Crestwood” are gently rising numbers that send you into another world of introspection, making it easy to lose your way if behind the wheel.
“Geppetto,” “The Grimm Tailor” and the harmonic beauty of “Titania’s Music Box” evoke a childlike wonder befitting Flaming’s technique and musical outlook.
“The Dream is Not Ended” may be the most melodically beautiful of the bunch, while “The Iron Kettle” is the only rustic, old-timey tune here, and perhaps a signal toward a theme for a future recording project.
“The Snail and the Rosebush” closes the disc with a gorgeous stroll of Flaming’s left hand up and down the fretboard.
Here’s hoping this relaxing and mesmerizing instrumental album is but the first of many from Flaming, whether acting solo or with those similarly talented.
by Aaron Keith Harris