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Review: Olitsky and Moskovitz Weave Beautiful Banjo Harmonies on "Duets"

What's better than a banjo? Two banjos! That's the case with "Duets," the new album by Mark Olitsky and Cary Moskovitz.

What makes this album soar is the very different playing styles of Olitsky and Moskovitz, as well as the distinct tonal properties of the banjos themselves.

Olitsky is playing clawhammer on a low-tuned, minstrel-style banjo that he built himself. Moskovitz brings the brighter tones, playing with a flat pick on a trio of four-string plectrum banjos: a 1922 Bacon “Orchestra A,” a 1928 Trujo and 1920 Orpheum No. 3.

Olitsky and Moskovitz got together at the 2016 Appalachian String Band Music Festival (aka Clifftop) to play some tunes. Olitsky had recently finished building his new banjo, and Moskovitz brought one of his plectrum banjos.

"We found the combination of these instruments enchanting," Moskovitz says. "Our banjo styles, each quirky in its own way, fit together in a manner that was both natural and exciting. We played banjo duets together a number of times that week and, before parting, decided that we should continue the collaboration."

Moskovitz has played the guitar since age 13 and started on banjo around 2003, originally playing jug-band, blues, early swing and other genres. He has performed both solo and in a variety of bands in North Carolina, Virginia and Maine over the past 35 years. His original style on banjo incorporates rhythmic, syncopated elements of clawhammer banjo, double-stop harmonies derived from traditional Appalachian fiddling, as well as blues and jazz influences from the African American banjo tradition.

Two very different banjos: Once of Moskovitz's plectrums (top)
and Olitsky's low-tuned, big-rimmed five-string.
Long-time readers of this blog are likely familiar with Olitsky's playing from the two-part interview we featured in 2011. (Here's a link to Part 1 and Part 2.) He gave some input about his new banjo and his approach to playing with another banjo player.

First, about that banjo ...

“For years, I’ve had a grain measure banjo that was built by Bob Thornburg, a 14-inch tack-head, skin head, gut strings, etc. I love the sound of it, but having a non-adjustable head, the tension is only optimal during the winter months when central heating really dries out the air," he says. "Never having made a banjo before, I thought that it would be a fun project to make a similar banjo and make tensioning hardware so that I could play it throughout the year. That project resulted in this banjo.”

Olitsky calls the banjo a “tip of the hat” to his Thornburg grain measure, but only as a starting point. His new banjo has a 13-inch rim (instead of a 14-inch), a 25.5-inch scale (instead of about 28-inch scale) and fretted instead of fretless. He uses heavy gauge nylon strings to tune the banjo lower like a minstrel banjo.

Playing with another banjo player was similar to playing with a fiddler, Olitsky says. Their different overall sounds allowed the duo to explore the different possibilities the tunes and instruments provided.

“When I accompany a fiddler, I make choices between the amount of melody and the amount of rhythm that I might play," Olitsky adds. "With two banjos, that also applies, except that there are two of us finding where our playing intersects. Our banjos are polar opposites in tone and our styles are very different. As we became familiar with playing together, we had options as to which banjo plays melody or lead, rhythm, harmony and how these combinations and tonal differences could affect the sound.”

Back of the CD and track listing.
Their banjos weave in and out in delightful and surprising ways. "Falls of Richmond" is a particular highlight, where Olitsky and Moskovitz find a number of exciting unison notes and then diverge again. Their version of "Elk River Blues," "Farewell Trion" and "Garfield's Blackberry Blossom" are also standouts.

Kicking off with a punchy version of "Barlow Knife," Olitsky and Moskovitz take listeners on a rollicking exploration of 17 tunes and songs, mostly in the old-time repertoire. But there are a few surprises, like a rendition of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." Moskovitz supplies vocals on three songs, "Hand Me Down My Walking Cane," "Black Eyed Susie" and "Hop High Lulu Gal."

“Our primary focus in playing two banjos has been to play fiddle tunes," Olitsky says. "We both have been immersed in old-time music for years. For this project, we both brought in tunes that were in our personal rotations. But, let’s face it, neither of us have wholly traditional styles of playing. I like to think that we’re open to any possibilities that may arise, both in style and repertoire.”

"Duets" is available through Bandcamp for $10 as a digital download or $15 for a CD. It's a no-brainer for Glory-Beaming Banjo readers. The entire album is filled with virtuosic banjo playing and is a must-have for banjo geeks and old-time music fans alike.

[Editor's Note: I received a free download of "Duets" in exchange for a review. The opinions expressed herein are my own.]

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