Uncle Woody Sullender & Kevin Davis - The Tempest is Over (Dead CEO, 2007)
My little tribute to the great, Earl Scruggs earlier this week, may have convinced you of my affection for the banjo. I also expressed disappointment at the cultural cringe the instrument has become slathered with, completely obfuscating the ability to see the inherent beauty of this stringed wonder. I’m always interested in the extended possibilities that any instrument is imbued with when removed from a stereotypical context. One of the reasons experimental improvisation excites me so much is that allows instruments, burdened with historical context, to breathe anew at the hands of exploratory artists interested in extended technique. Earlier this week I stumbled across ‘The Tempest Is Over’, by Uncle Woody Sullender and Kevin Davis, which places the much maligned banjo within an improvisational context. The mere fact that banjoists exist with a drive to expand the dialogue of their instrument is enormously exciting and inspiring for me. I immediately started searching for further information about the album and stumbled across several unsatisfactory reviews. One regrettable reviews dedicated half of its length to chastising the banjo and expressing a certain dismay that the album existed. So although this album is quite old now, I felt a desire to say a few words about it.
Uncle Woody Sullender
As a moniker, ‘Uncle Woody Sullender’ doesn’t exactly sever associations with Appalachian musical traditionalism. Like any great musician, he understands the history of his instrument and doesn’t run away from it. I’ve found references to a fascinating-sounding article written by Sullender, which purportedly theorises about the historical roll of the banjo and how that history has impacted upon the present. Unfortunately the link to the article no longer appears to be active, so I will quote the brief summary from a Tiny Mix Tapes review:
Sullender has serious ideas about the role the banjo has played. His own manifesto gives a downright scholarly analysis of the banjo as a distinctly Southern instrument with socio-cultural and political underpinnings. He argues that the banjo is inextricably tied to the folk tradition of Appalachia and the slave trade. In this context, it becomes not just a product of slavery, but also a product of Northern attitudes that have shaped contemporary attitudes towards the instrument.
In any situation, it’s important to understand that all contemporary attitudes are inescapably affected by the history of that attitude. We are not as free-willed as we like to think we are and it takes a lot of work to change our personal opinions. What excites me about Sullender’s approach to the banjo is his insistence that you hear it as both old and new – that you find comfort in the past and present co-existing. Traditionalist are asked to open their minds when listening to the Derek Bailey-esque shards of improvised note residue, while the self-consciously hip are asked to open their minds when hearing the ghosts of music past.
Sullender and Kevin Davis (cello)
On ‘The Tempest Is Over’, Sullender teams up with cello player, Kevin Davis to dual it out over seven intense tracks. My first thought was Jack Rose’s phenomenal album, ‘Raag Manifestos’, which has a similar overwhelming intensity. Davis’ cello adds a thick swell of bass to the clusters of rolling banjo notes that, at times, can be unrelenting. It freezes you to the spot. When these intense moments abate, they are replaced by spare, bucolic passages of fantastic musical conversation between Sullender and Davis. To me, the banjo truly reveals its beauty when the speed has been taken away. The idiosyncratic resonance of a banjo note left to die is one of the loneliest sounds in the world. It’s in these moments that we are forced to interprut the instrument differently – to remove it from its past.
Jack Rose – Raag Manifestos
The faster, more intense passages have rage behind them, far removed from the bluegrass tradition. In these moments, the musicians are in a fight – two sounds attacking each other, neither capitulating to the other. The very different timbres of the two instruments blend beautifully together, allowing each to be heard clearly, even when both are yelling.
In terms of improvisation, the approach is still quite traditional. At no time does the banjo and cello sound like anything else. It leads to a situation wherein the music in totality isn’t what you’d call cutting edge, but the ingredients are interesting. It’s an opportunity to listen to the banjo speak in a different language. There’s very few instruments as glued to their history as the banjo, and in directly confronting this, Sullender should be commended. Most important of all, ‘The Tempest is Over’ is a real joy to listen to. I recommend everyone does just that.
What makes it even better, ‘The Tempest is Over’ is available to download in its entirety completely free of charge by Sullender himself (who runs the Dead CEO label). Should you wish, you can buy a physical version or donate a little money for the free download here.
Listen to (and/or download) the album for free here.
- Matthew Revert
Filed under: Album Review, Music | Tagged: Banjo, Dead CEO, History, Jack Rose, Kevin Davis, Raag Manifestos, The Tempest is Over, Uncle Woody Sullender | Leave a Comment »