CD Review – Byron Berline “Jammin’ With Byron”
Written by Dan King
Byron Berline loves to play the fiddle. You can tell. There is a contagious energy that comes off his strings when he’s bowing that sounds simultaneously athletic and poetic. Witness the impressive display of fiddle gymnastics that start on the first tune of his new CD, “Jammin’ With Byron” and continue all the way through the 22nd and final track.
Twenty-two tunes amount to an entire recording career for some musicians, but Byron and his large band of fine picking friends have compiled that many on this one single CD. It is a project that seems destined to become a textbook on old-time fiddle playing for generations to come.
Byron Berline has long been recognized as one of the première fiddlers in the land. Back in the mid-sixties, he caught the attention of Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass. Monroe was so taken by the aforementioned energy that he invited Byron to join his band, but Byron was a young man with his own agenda and a strong conviction to see it through. The offer from Monroe was tabled to allow Byron time to finish his formal education.
A few years later with his teaching degree firmly in hand, Byron finally took Monroe up on his offer and joined the Bluegrass Boys, The pairing lasted less than a year as the United States Army came calling with a completely different gig in mind for the young fiddler. With his military service complete, Berline went on to forge a long and storied career in the music business by playing on countless relevant recordings of the day, appearing in concert with many major acts, and winning awards both as a solo performer and as a member of the band “California.”
Recorded and mixed at Byron’s Double Stop Fiddle Shop in Guthrie Oklahoma, “Jammin’ With Byron” sounds like what it is; a bunch of friends getting together and recording some tunes for the fun of it. This “jam” is not a free for all. Byron and associates have taken the time to work out arrangements for the songs with twin and harmony lines of melody, and structures in the traditional ABA style. The result is a nice neat package with lots of fine picking and improvisational wizardry. Ten of the 22 songs contained here are Berline compositions and all the tracks are instrumentals
The core band on “Jammin’ With Byron” includes Berline on fiddle and mandolin, Greg Burgess on fiddle and guitar, Jim Fish on guitar, and John Hickman on banjo. All in all, seventeen musicians appear on various tunes on the recording, with wife Betty Berline showing up on keyboards on four of them. All the musicians are top flite and the result is a treasure trove of well-played and energetic bluegrass and Celtic music.
The only down side I can see to this work is that almost all the tunes are mid-tempo songs. With twenty-two tracks from start to finish, a few nice romantic melodies mixed with three or four barn burners would have made the recording a bit easier to digest in a single sitting. Also, some of the tuning is suspect here and there, but mind you, it IS basically a live studio recording. These musicians recorded 15 tunes in one night for this CD. Many bands will run through just one song 15 times to try to get it right, and still have to punch in parts that are out of tune, out of time, or just not played very well. In that respect, these guys (and gal) are still way ahead of the curve.
All in all, ”Jammin’ With Byron” is an interesting must-have CD for fiddle aficionados and musicologists alike, as well as a nice teaching tool for aspiring players. It is a fitting contribution from a prolific fiddler who always wanted to be a teacher. But you don’t need an ulterior motive like studying the fiddle to enjoy this music. Even a casual listen is sure to perk up your day.
Before I close, I must say a word about the cover of this CD. It doesn’t tell us in the liner notes who the young man in the photo is, so I am assuming it’s Byron’s grandson Brighton. In the picture, the young man is sitting with fiddle in hand and looking up to his grandpa.as if to say, “Put me in, coach!” I think it is just adorable and it is my personal favorite to win CD Cover of the Year. As for the music itself, I am awarding “Jammin’ With Byron” four and a half banjo strings along with a whole lot of respect for the iconic fiddlin’ patriarch,Byron Berline.
As more than one client must have said to him throughout his career, “Nicely played sir.”
Dan King writes for: www.PrescriptionBluegrass.com
and is the founder of: www.BoundForGlory.net