For anyone under the misconception that the banjo is an instrument used only in bluegrass music, it's best to catch Alison Brown when she performs with her quartet in San Juan Capistrano on May 16, 2009.
The banjo virtuoso will perform as part of the Music at the Library concert series at 6:30 p.m. and again at 8:30 p.m. at the San Juan Capistrano Regional Library.
Brown, who grew up in the San Diego area and graduated from La Jolla High School, is considered one of the best banjo players on the planet. And while it was bluegrass music that inspired a 10-year-old Brown to pick up the instrument in the early 1970s, today she blends jazz, Americana, folk and Celtic styles together in a sonic brew that is as groundbreaking as it is beautiful.
She comes to Orange County in the wake of the April 9 release of "The Company You Keep," her tenth full-length release. The title is actually an acknowledgment of several areas of her professional life.
"It has a two-fold purpose," Brown said in a recent interview, where she spoke by phone from her home in Nashville, Tenn.
"The first thing I was thinking about was just wanting to do an album that brought the members of the quartet to the forefront just because the guys I am playing with have been on this musical journey with me from the beginning, basically from the first gig I did. And pianist John R. Burr in particular just brings an incredible gift to this music. I mean, my music would not be the same as it is now if I hadn't been playing with John all these years. I'm sure you can tell from listening to the record, he has great jazz chops but a wonderful folk sensibility, and we started playing together in 1993 – that's 16 years now. I can't believe it."
In addition to Brown and pianist John R. Burr, the rest of the quartet features bassist Garry West and fiddler-mandolin player-percussionist Joe Craven.
The second layer in the title of "The Company You Keep" addresses Compass Records. The independent record label was launched by Brown and West (the couple are married and have two young children) in 1995 and has released hundreds of albums by celebrated artists, including Colin Hay (Men at Work), the Bittersweets, Beoga, the Gibson Brothers and Bearfoot.
Brown admits that balancing the duties as band leader, record label executive and mother can be challenging.
"I think the way I juggle my work is the same way that any mom juggles her work," Brown explained. "And I've found that the way that seems to work best for me is that some days are more about being at the office and other days are more on the road and it's all about the music. But it is a completely different time from when I could just sit down with my banjo anytime I wanted and write a tune or just kind of daydream and play. I don't really get to do that anymore."
But listening to Brown's latest album, and the beautiful work she displays on the Celtic-flavored "Drawing Down the Moon" and jazz-styled "Rocket Summer," it's easy to hear why Brown continues to make time to champion the banjo.
"It's a challenging instrument just because most people insist on thinking it has to be like 'Hee Haw' and bank robbery music and car chase music," Brown said.
"It's just a perpetual challenge that we (banjo players) face. They (some listeners) don't recognize or they are reluctant to buy into the idea that the banjo has a long history in lots of different kinds of music and there is no reason why it can't play lots of different kinds of music, and there is absolutely no reason to be afraid of the banjo."
For more information on Brown's upcoming shows, visit http://www.musicatthelibrary.com/ or call the San Juan Capistrano Regional Library at 949-493-1752.