Meet Noam Pikelny. At age 23, this 5-string-banjo wunderkind has quickly established himself as one of the most innovative young voices in modern bluegrass. Pikelny spent his teenage years honing a fearsome set of chops on the festival circuit while also studying composition at the University of Illinois. In 2002, the Chicago native rose to national prominence with legendary slamgrass jamsters Leftover Salmon, when he was chosen to replace the late, great Mark Van. After two years of almost non-stop touring with the group, he utilized some down time to track his solo debut In the Maze [Compass], which also features Matt Flinner on mandolin, David Grier on guitar, Todd Phillips on bass, and Gabe Witcher on fiddle. Eight of In the Maze’s ten cuts are original compositions that downplay fretboard pyrotechnics and instead focus on Pikelny’s strong melodic lyricism and flair for combining conventional bluegrass sounds with jazz and classical harmonies.
The introspective acoustic flavor on In the Maze is a departure from the revved-up, hi-energy onslaught of Leftover Salmon.
Yeah, this record is probably more in line with where I am as an artist right now. I played a lot of electric banjo with Salmon, and we did a good deal of improvising at fast tempos. We played pretty loud too, and there was a real rock and roll vibe to the shows. I enjoyed it, but it’s not really my forte. It doesn’t feel natural for me to play that way all the time. I’m much more at home on my Nechville Nextar acoustic, writing instrumentals that are somewhat in the bluegrass framework, but also have something unusual and unique about them.
On the opening track “Speed Bump,” the first two parts sit nicely in the standard fiddle-banjo tradition. But the third part contains more complex counterpoint with two melodic lines that simultaneously move in different directions. Looking back, I think I was subconsciously inspired by a Bach piece I’d been practicing earlier. Also I’d say the song “Manchicken” is equal parts bluegrass, chicken pickin’, and bebop. The melodic line is very chromatic, and it goes over some altered chord changes. Instead of just using a standard I-IV-V progression in G, I made the IV chord a C7#11. David, Matt, and Gabe played some really hip solos over it too. When I wrote that tune, I was trying to take something that was in the Earl Scruggs realm and add a modern jazz flair to it.
The title track also has some surprising melodic and harmonic twists.
That’s probably the most unlikely title track for an acoustic banjo record. It’s a slow and spacious tune with no improvisation, but it’s very melodically adventurous. If you listen carefully, there are parts where it’s hard to tell when one section is ending and another is beginning. I called it “In the Maze” because the melodic lines have a real labyrinthine feel to them. It’s my favorite cut on the album and the one I’m most proud of.
Aside from playing on In the Maze, Matt Flinner and Todd Phillips also produced it. What did you learn from working with musicians of their caliber and experience?
They taught me to be patient and keep an open mind in the studio. Often I’d come in with a fixed idea about how an arrangement should go and would want to bang it out, but they encouraged me to try things that were different. They’d explore unusual rhythmic feels, or maybe change a song’s structure to something less traditional but more interesting. Also Todd encouraged me to judge solos more by feel than technique. He showed me it’s more important to strive for a performance that conveys emotion, rather than technical perfection.•