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Béla Fleck & Abigail WashburnBéla Fleck & Abigail Washburn
Album: Echo In The Valley
Label: Rounder
Tracks: 11

Husband and wife banjo duo Fleck and Washburn follow up their eponymous 2016 Grammy winning debut with this brilliantly seductive sophomore outing for which they set their own boundaries - no instruments other than banjos, no guests and no overdubs or studio wizardry.

The task was to take their exploration of the banjo duet even further than before. The result is stunning. There's no other word for it.

Fleck, who can count no less then 15 Grammy awards to his name, is widely considered the world's premier banjo player. The originator of Newgrass, a bluegrass/jam hybrid that talks to jazz and classical as readily as to mountain music and blues, his playing is that of a man who inhabits the very soul of his instrument. Washburn's immersion in Chinese folk music and her virtuosic clawhammer playing - not to mention a distinctive, involving vocal style - ensure that, between them, they conjure the banjo's West African origins and its development in the southern United States as well as somehow tint its tradition with the subtle hues of the Far East and Eurasia.

Here, the banjo sounds like a musical history of the people that have played it for the last 400 years, from slavery to freedom to economic hardship and beyond, drawing new life in feeding it back to the culture of their one-time enslavers.

The song Come All You Coal Miners aches with pathos while burning with the pride of labour yet told from a woman's perspective. If they put songs on the school syllabus this should be right up there. Elsewhere, Clarence Ashley's rural blues My Home's Across the Blue Ridge Mountains whets the appetite for trad Appalachian fare like Sally in the Garden and Molly Put the Kettle On, but the emotional resonance hits a sweet spot again with the almost meditative Don't Let It Bring You Down.

The record is out now, as converts will no doubt be all too aware, but for those minded to challenge what they think they know about what's possible from a banjo there's no better starting point.

Nick Churchill