Issue 11: Composers Get Entwined With Jake Schepps’s Bluegrass Band

By Daniel Kushner

Boulder, Colorado-based banjo player Jake Schepps is not a classically trained musician. In fact, he didn't pick up his instrument of choice until he was 21 years of age. Now, as a vital leader in the progressive bluegrass scene, these minor biographical details haven't deterred Schepps from venturing into the world of contemporary classical music with his latest album Entwined, released on January 27 via the artist's own label Fine Mighty Records.

While his previous record, An Evening in the Village: The Music of Béla Bartók from 2011, found Schepps arranging the 20th century composer's works for string band--banjo, mandolin, violin, acoustic guitar, and double bass, on Entwined he enlisted living composers to write new works to be interpreted by the aptly named Jake Schepps Quintet. Here, Schepps--alongside mandolinist Matt Flinner, guitarist Ross Martin, violinist Ryan Drickey, and bassist Eric Thorin--interprets the compositional voices of Gyan Riley, Marc Mellits, Matt McBane, and Flinner himself.

Entwined is an immensely thoughtful endeavor. The quintet revels in the natural expressive versatility of its instrumentation while suggesting that the traditional string band can be stretched further still. There are the riff-laden, cyclically expansive melodies of Mellits's "Flatiron;" the lush counterpoint and pitter-patter rhythmic intricacies McBane employs in "Drawn;" and Gyan Riley's mercurial "Stumble Smooth," with its delightfully dizzy phrases and playful use of mixed meter.

To hear Schepps explain it in the following interview, the album is a kind of celebration of the string band by deconstruction:

For those who may come from either the Americana camp or the classical sector and are perhaps unfamiliar with this stylistic permutation, is there a genre term that you find helpful in providing listeners with a entry point?

Yes, but I think that it sets me kind of within the "string band" world, and I don't know how familiar you are with that--like from the David Grisman Quintet onward more or less, through Béla Fleck and players like that. It's kind of like when playing--not [Béla Fleck and the] Flecktones so much--when playing acoustic music, we refer to this as "new acoustic" music. That's a term that was coined in maybe the early 80's at some point, just to kind of refer to playing with just more extended harmony and more extended, more advanced compositional techniques than the founders of the kind of first-generation bluegrass folk.

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