A collection of mostly original instrumental music composed on the five-string banjo over the last ten years by a Canadian old-time banjo maestro. Some tracks – like the gorgeous two-finger style title track and Rollicking Edward (named for Naiman’s grandson) are performed entirely solo, while others are performed in duo with guitarist Chris Coole, or in ensemble with Coole, fiddlers John Showman and Hannah Shira Naiman, and Max Heineman on bass.The second tune in the Slipping And Sliding set is traditional (sourced from North Carolina fiddler Marcis Martin) and Square Peg is by fiddler Jim Childress, but otherwise it’s all Naiman’s own work. He is, indisputably, a masterful banjo player, but equally importantly he’s a very fine tunesmith too. Playin’ Jane is the most joyous of earworms, while tunes like Snowy Morning/The Old New Year are sure to enter the session repertoire of five-string slingers everywhere.The CD sleevenotes are brief but include information about the tunings and which of Naiman’s various instruments (Vega tuba- phone, Romero, Rickard spunover) he’s playing on each track.Produced with funding support from the Ontario Arts Council
A nice album that features old-time banjo pickin on mostly original compositions. Naiman has appeared on several other old-time CDs that we have carried over the years—mostly accompanied by Chris Coole on guitar. (A couple of tracks also include a bit of fiddle work by Jim Childress, Hannah Naiman and John Showman). Naiman includes the banjo tunings for all of the 13 pieces. Some nice melodies here, especially PLAYIN’ JANE and SNOWY MORNING. A good CD for the many fans of old time banjo.
You’ve got to love this, and I’ll tell you why. Look at the liner notes. Each song lists the people that join Naiman, adding their stuff to his. Chris Coole’s there pretty much on every one. Love that. Naiman is credited on every track, less because he’s there than because he wants us to know which banjo he played: Vega Tubaphone, Romero. Love that! Honestly, gives your heart a bit of a thrill at every mention. Then, right after the banjo, there’s the tuning he used. Love that!!!
The reason I love all of this, and you should, too, is because Naiman himself so clearly loves it. There’s no other reason. He’s from Toronto. That says something. No, there’s no money in the banjo, and if you live in Toronto, it’s not cool either. If not for a very deep love, this wouldn’t be here at all. He loves clawhammer banjo, it’s tone, the tunes, the lilt, and it shows.
He wants to share it. And he does, quietly, carefully, and as comfortably as an old shoe. This is a beautiful, thoughtful, glorious collection of tunes that we can get lost in precisely because Naiman does. Love it, love it, love it.
When I think of old timey banjo music, I usually don’t associate the genre with Canada. Well, here’s a notable exception. My Lucky Stars is the latest album from veteran Canadian banjo player Arnie Naiman. It consists primarily of Arnie’s original tunes, written over the past ten years. The album features an all-star group of Canadian musicians, and (with one exception) was recorded, mixed, and mastered in Canada.
I first became aware of Arnie Naiman in 2010 by way of his work with the Albemarle Ramblers. Their “Gentlemen From Virginia” album features Arnie on banjo, and includes one of my favorite banjo tunes of all-time: Walking the Dog. Since then I’ve enjoyed the albums he made with fellow Canadian Chris Coole (“Five Strings Attached With No Backing,” Volumes 1 and 2) plus his various appearances on other albums. So I was delighted to hear about his most recent project.
“My Lucky Stars”has 13 tracks, all instrumentals. The total playtime is a tad over 42 minutes. Three of the tracks are banjo solos, five are banjo and guitar duets, one is fiddle and banjo duet, and the remaining four feature a string band with Arnie on banjo, accompanied by guitar, fiddle, and bass. It’s a nice mix, and the instrumental variety makes the album enjoyable to listen to from beginning to end.
Arnie plays three banjos on this album: a Vega Tubaphone, a 12-inch Rickard spunover, and a 12-inch Romero slothead. Perhaps not coincidentally, banjo builders Bill Rickard and Jason Romero also hail from Canada.
For some, an album of original tunes isn’t as appealing as an album of traditional tunes because none of the tunes are immediately recognizable. For others (including me), listening to a batch of fresh tunes that they’ve never heard before is a good part of the appeal -- especially when the tunes are so good. And these tunes are good.
My favorite track is the first one, Catch of the Day, played by the string band contingent. It’s a crooked tune that made me grab a banjo to figure out how to play it.
Another favorite is South River Dam<, also recorded by the full string band. This one made me find a guitar so I could play along. This catchy tune would be great for an old time jam. Another good jam candidate is Maggie At The Door. It’s one of those tunes that, when it finishes, everyone asks, “Wow, what was that?”
The five banjo and guitar duets are superb. My favorite of these is Playin’ Jane. Listen a few times and it’s practically guaranteed to spawn an earworm. It’s clear that Naiman and Coole have played together a lot over the years. They complement each other perfectly, and make those 11 strings sound amazing together.
One of the non-original tunes is Square Peg, a quirky banjo/fiddle duet that originally appeared on Jim Childress’ excellent “Free Union” album, recorded in 2013. According to Childress, the tune’s title reflects that it is not consistent in being either “modal” or major, and so does not fit exactly in either category—a square peg in a round hole.
The other non-original tune is Boatsman (sourced from Marcus Martin), which is part of a two-tune medley that kicks off with Naiman’s Slipping and Sliding. The track starts with a solo banjo, and other instruments gradually join in for the second tune. Boatsman is a three-part tune, which ends on the second part hanging on the IV chord. Nice!
The liner notes include a brief description of each tune, plus the banjo used and it’s tuning. Most of the playing is clawhammer style, but a few tracks feature 2-finger picking. Arnie uses six different tunings, including gEbGBbEb on the final tune, Jonathan Max, a solo banjo tune in the unusual key of Eb. Arnie tells me that raising the tuning a half step from Open D tuning (f#DF#AD) added string tension to improve the resonance on the Vega banjo—and also to provide some variety, since he uses Open D tuning on three other tracks.
The tunes on this album are all relatively complex (no simple filler tunes). They’ve been honed over the years, and were well rehearsed for the recording session. Arnie’s banjo playing is clean, precise, and melodic—especially noticeable on the solo tracks. That, combined with the uniformly excellent recording quality, makes for an enjoyable listening experience. The album, by the way, was recorded live in the studio over a period of two and a half days, with no overdubbing.
“My Lucky Stars” is an impressive album, and it will surely be one of the top old time albums of the year. And unlike many other albums in the genre, you don’t have to be a musician to fully appreciate it. The album is available as a traditional CD, or as a digital download (which includes the cover art and liner notes).
Arnie Naiman, banjo; Chris Coole, guitar; Hannah Shira Naiman, fiddle; John Showman, fiddle; Jim Childress, fiddle; Max Heinman, bass. Additional tunes: Reminiscence, My Lucky Stars, Snow Morning/The Old New Year, Mystery, Rollicking Edward, and Take Your Time.
Arnie Naiman is one of the leading exponents of old-time banjo and an important figure on the Canadian old-time and bluegrass scene. He has influenced many players and is held in high regard especially in the old-time scene. Most of the cuts here are his originals, with the exception of the traditional tune “Boatsman” and Jim Childress’ tune “Square Peg.” Childress also fiddles on this cut.
Naiman demonstrates his dexterous approach with two-finger picking and clawhammer style. His touch is masterful in both styles. His humor shows when he reveals in the liner notes that “Slipping And Sliding” was written about the dreaded Polar Vortex of 2013. In a medley with the aforementioned “Boatsman,” the twin fiddles by his daughter Hannah Shira Naiman and John Showman drive the tunes along with skill.
Naiman plays three different banjos, ranging from a ringing steel-string sound to plunky nylon or gut-string sounds. The introspective title cut, played in a two-finger style nicely displays the introspective power of the old-time banjo. Chris Coole is featured quite a bit here on guitar and does so with great taste. The tracks range from band format to solo, with several just featuring guitar and banjo. The opening cut, “Catch Of The Day,” features a cutting fiddle line by John Showman who also fiddles elsewhere on their project. Max Heineman plays bass on the band cuts.
Old-time banjo does not follow the rules of bluegrass. Sometimes the cuts can be slow and pensive. Here, it never gets that trashy sound that was so prevalent on commercial recordings in years gone by. We are treated to a wide sonic range, capturing many emotions and states of mind from introspection to joy. Great stuff for listening indeed. (Merriweather Records, 109 Crawford Rose Dr., Aurora, ON, L4G 4S1, Canada, www.merriweather.ca.) Bob Buckingham
High quality banjo music - not a phrase you'll hear often, but in this case it certainly applies. Arnie Naiman plays his own tunes on 5-string banjo, and is supported by a pretty classic old-time line-up: guitar, bass, and two or three fiddles. Some of My Lucky Stars has a quite contemporary feel, but most of it would feel at home on a front porch in Kentucky or West Virginia. Naiman himself is from Ontario, which of course has its own old time tradition as well as many others, and maybe there's a Canadian flavour to his music. It's certainly quite relaxed: Reminiscence recalls the dreamier side of Gerry O'Connor's forays into Americana, and the title track is suitable for star-gazing under those clear Canadian skies. Even Rollicking Edward belies its name, a gentle piece, more of a saunter really.
The pace does pick up in several places. The pagan theme of The Old New Year gets the blood flowing, and South River Dam has a real swagger to it. The opening Catch of the Day is a nice toe-tapping tune, and the medley of Naiman's Slipping and Sliding with the traditional Boatsman is probably the most powerful track here and certainly my favourite. Another one worth noting is Square Peg, a lovely girl by all accounts: this tune was written by Virginian fiddler Jim Childress who.. has two of his own albums. Arnie's daughter, Hannah also plays fine fiddle on this recording, as does John Showman, and guitar and bass are expertly wielded by Chris Coole and Max Heineman respectively. Arnie plays a number of different banjos - thankfully only one at a time - in various tunings which are helpfully given in the sleeve notes and seem to be mainly in G, D and A, plus a very peculiar flat key tuning for the final air Jonathan Max. The whole CD is very enjoyable if you're in a mellow frame of mind, and there are some great tunes here for the old time players to learn.
© Alex Monaghan Folkworld
Review from The Old Time Herald Volume 14, Number 7.
This excellent all-instrumental album demonstrates that there are still a very large number of pleasing note combinations to be discovered and formed into tunes, and Arnie Naiman has found some good ones. Writing as somebody who does not have the gene which allows the construction (or discovery) of new tunes, I am in awe of Arnie’s mind (and of Carl Jones, Mark Simos, the late Garry Harrison, and others) and the creative process of forming new tunes. It is then an additional act of faith to put these tunes out on a CD for others to listen to, and hope that some of them will be picked up by other musicians and pass into the old-time repertoire. (Oh, for a time machine to look forward 25 years!)
These tunes are played well; the frailing is clean, the fingerpicking is excellent at all speeds—in general, the skill level of both Arnie and his backup musicians is so high that one thinks “these are nice tunes” and not “wow, listen to the fancy playing.” Which is as it should be. And now we can move on and talk about the tunes themselves.
Arnie chose to open the CD with a medium-tempo crooked tune which he called “Catch of the Day.” In the liner notes, he describes a fishing trip with his son and daughter-in-law, where his son snagged his wife in the forehead while casting the lure. Even without knowing the story, it’s a nice tune, but the story adds an extra dimension. (one can almost hear the moment when she says “OUCH!”)
For my ears, the most successful tunes are the square, relatively fast tunes, which would make very good dance tunes. These, I believe, are the most likely tunes to be learned by others. Examples are: “Playin’ Jane” (his tribute to Jane Rothfield, another fine creator of original tunes), “The Old New Year” and “Maggie at the Door.” Slightly slower, but just as enjoyable, is “Slipping and Sliding,” (does he play it more slowly because you can’t move too fast when navigating in an ice storm?) which is a square tune, but has some hitches in its timing that makes it sound un-square.
His creativity is most apparent on the slower, modal tunes, especially the ones which are played in a two-finger style instead of downpicking. “My Lucky Stars,” his meditation on how fortunate he feels to be here on Earth now, deserves repeated listening. “Reminiscence,” written after the passing of his father, is similar in character.
“Take Your Time” is a tune in open-D tuning which, just when you are enjoying the melody, stops, breaks rhythm, and then goes on with the rhythmic melody. For me, this was the least successful tune on the CD, but others may enjoy the varied rhythm and tempo. The phrase “Your mileage may vary” comes to mind—if, as I hope, these tunes get the circulation they deserve, others may consider this the most successful tune!
On the back of the album appears the sentence: “We would like to acknowledge funding support from the Ontario Arts Council, an agency of the Government of Ontario.” Unlike the country in which most of us live, Canada is grateful for its creative artists, and will help them express their art and make it accessible to people like us. I too am grateful both to the Government of Ontario and to Arnie Naiman (and his friends) for creating and recording these tunes for us to hear. Pete Peterson