A bold bluegrass album that moves the music in new directions, taking some risks and winning with nearly all of them.
Tray Wellington opens his debut album with a typical Bluegrass Banjo showcase ‘Crooked Mind’. Following this with a song that combines Gypsy Jazz guitar and fiddle with a Mexican flavour sets out his stall offering something different both as a Banjo player and someone working in the Bluegrass tradition.
Covering Roy Hargrove’s ‘Strasbourg/St.Denis’ with the call and response sections featuring Wellington’s Banjo and Lyndsay Pruett’s Violin sounds like a brave move but works brilliantly. Jon Stickley’s guitar playing is one of the highlights of much of the album and is particularly good on this piece. Following the first vocal song, sung by Tim O’Brien, ‘Wasted Time’, it’s back to a traditionally structured Bluegrass piece ‘Half Past Four’. ‘Saw A Little Boat’, written and sung by Wellington is a song clearly influenced by his North Carolina home. It’s followed by ‘Unknown Days Waltz’ and introspective piece with another moody Stephane Grappelli styled fiddle solo from Avery Merritt. As one of the trio of fiddle players featured throughout the album, each contributing a different sound. The last of these Carley Arrowood took the solo on ‘Half Past Four’ a couple of songs previously. Mandolinist Wayne Benson has a unique sound that mirrors Wellington’s virtuoso Banjo playing well. ‘Unknown Days Waltz’ also serves to show off the skills of bassist Kevin Kehrberg.
The second Jazz classic that Wellington tackles is John Coltrane’s ‘Naima’. Featuring a brief rap from Wellington, this doesn’t work as well as the Hargrove piece, but is still a brave attempt to introduce a classic tune into the Bluegrass world. Pruett’s fiddle seems to struggle with the nuances of the tune, but it is nearly rescued by Kehrberg’s blending of elements of Wynton Kelly’s original piano lines into the bass part. Closing out the album are ‘Pond Mountain Breakaway’ and ‘Nightfall Rendezvous’. Both of these are straightforward Bluegrass/Newgrass tunes serving again to highlight the instrumental skills of the band.
In calling his album ‘Black Banjo’, Wellington is putting down a marker. “I wanted to re-envision people’s perspectives on who and what it means to play banjo. So many times people think playing banjo is for ‘white people,’ and I want to show people that that’s simply not at all the case, as anyone can play any form of music they want and whatever instrument they want. As well, I wanted to redefine and tackle certain genre boundaries people place on the banjo.”
Tray Wellington has broken new ground with this album. As well as respecting the traditions of Bluegrass, he has nudged it in some different directions, especially with ‘Strasbourg/St.Denis’. His bold moves towards Jazz that crop up on a number of the prices here are refreshing and while ‘Naima’ isn’t entirely successful taking the risk with it was entirely worthwhile. As his press release says: Wellington is in command of his music, “with a sense of confidence rooted in his identity as a creative Black banjo player. If there’s one thing Black Banjo makes clear, it’s that for Tray Wellington, his exploration of the world of music is just getting started”.