There are not many renowned jazz banjoists around – Béla Fleck is probably the best known – but there’s little doubt that Cynthia Sayer’s fame is growing. The talented instrumentalist has been a prolific recording artist too, as evidenced by the recent release of her eighth album, Attractions, now out on the Plunk label.
Sayer plays the four-string plectrum banjo, which is a different animal than the five-string used by Fleck and others. The plectrum is usually played with a guitar-style pick, and it more easily allows a style of play that includes strummed chords in the midst of all the pickin’. It was the favorite instrument of the legendary Eddie Peabody.
On this album Sayer gives us an intriguing mix of 13 tracks, among them a little bit of everything from traditional to classical, and from Latin to country. She also sings in about half of the pieces, and truthfully, those were among my least favorites. Her voice is not particularly strong or distinctive, and unless her flyin’ fingers need the rest, I think she’s a stronger performer when she sticks to the banjo.
Sayer, who has played in Woody Allen’s Dixieland band for years, is joined here by some first-rate instrumentalists, including guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli (who gets cover credit), trumpeter Randy Sandke, and Scott Robinson on sax and clarinet. Those guys, along with some other pros making appearances on various tracks, help provide a solid musical foundation for the star.
Always a traditionalist, I found myself deriving the most enjoyment from Sayer’s performances of some of the old songs, including familiar Latin standards such as “El Choclo,” a deceptively simple piece in which she’s backed only by Pizzarelli’s fine guitar work and Greg Cohen’s bass. Very nice.
Another good listen was “Dark Eyes,” a tune that’s been done many times but is given new life here via Sayer’s almost zither-like banjo play. And as long as we’re talking about an old-world sound, “Swing De Paris,” her tribute to a personal hero, legendary gypsy guitarist Django Reindhardt (who started as a banjoist), would have been completely at home in the original Hot Club of France.
Completing the wide spectrum of instrumental diversity on the album is the closing track, which is Sayer’s solo virtuoso turn on a classical piece, Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody #2.” It’s nothing short of amazing.
Although I’ve already commented on my preference for the instrumentals, there are some interesting choices among the vocal selections. For example, at least three of them are to some extent related to the movies. “Over The Rainbow” is well-known from The Wizard Of Oz (although this version is vastly different than Judy Garland’s) and “Aba Dabba Honeymoon” was originally sung by Debbie Reynolds in Two Weeks With Love.
However, it’s another tune from a movie that made the biggest impression on me and was probably the best among the vocals. It’s Sidney Bechet’s marijuana-themed song from the 1930’s, “Viper Mad,” which was featured in the cult classic Reefer Madness. It’s a piece that Sayer often sings when playing with Woody’s group, and she does a good job here — as does Robinson on soprano sax, emulating Bechet.
Overall, an above-average grade on this album — there’s a lot to like here, and it is most certainly something a little different.
Full track listing and full-length samples available at artist’s website.