Week 396: “Waveland” by Noam Pikelny

One of the signs of superior musicianship might be the ability to make an instrument do what most people assume it cannot do.

I don’t mean the ability to play a given instrument ridiculously fast or upside down or blindfolded. I’m thinking more of what David Downing does with the cello. Or what Bobby McFerrin does with the voice.

Or what Noam Pikelny does with the banjo.

When I first heard this song, from his 2017 album Universal Favorite, it took a moment before I realized it was a banjo. My immediate first impression was not, “hey, that’s a banjo.” It was, “hey, that’s beautiful.”

Which isn’t to say that banjos can’t be pretty. As previously noted, I’m all for the banjo getting its time to shine. It’s just that Pikelny plays it here in a very un-banjo-ey way. It almost sounds like a harp, or the world’s tiniest harpsichord. He plays the banjo in a way that circumvents the instrument’s stereotypes, and it’s awesome.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. Sometimes my ears focus on the melodic line of the high notes.

2. Other times my ears focus on the chromatic descent of the lower notes.

3. Occasionally, my ears focus on the mid-range notes, and I lose track of the time signature. It’s like floating in that hazy purgatory between wakefulness and sleep.

Recommended listening activity:

Using a fresh-out-of-the-dryer towel as a pillow.

Buy it here.

Also, watch this.