Frailing to Succeed
The banjo moves through a constellation of modes, meditations designed to be expanded upon. In his new album of original compositions, Frailing to Succeed, Winnipeg banjo master Daniel Koulack’s clawhammer style is the sun around which soprano saxophone, alto saxophone, clarinet, flute, violin, marimba, percussion, and drum kit—the tradition instruments of jazz—revolve. The result is a project that pushes traditional roles of a banjo through different instrumentation, improvisation, and counter-melodic explorations, an interplay that also parallels what makes Winnipeg, Manitoba, Koulack’s hometown, special. For instance, jazz guitar legend Lenny Breau lived in Winnipeg for many years and his rhythm section would work with him as easily as with Métis fiddle icon Reg Bouvette. The interconnected nature of the Winnipeg music scene has always meant that hard-gigging musicians are adept at switching between traditional, world, swing, and jazz music genres. Koulack himself has spent his career working with superb jazz, African, Klezmer, French-Canadian, and classical musicians. He and his band bring this flurry of influences together in the most surprising ways on the cosmos that is Frailing to Succeed.
Joy seems to be the subject of Koulack’s meditations in Frailing to Succeed. The first songs on the album, “Happy Tune” and “Simon and Micah,” flit cheerfully along, as if playing with a cherub-cheeked child. “Simon and Micah” was written for, as Koulack says, “two extraordinarily bright, funny, sweet sons of very close friends of mine (also nephews of my alto sax player).” The transcendent, soaring melody is homage to these young boys, but also seems to pay tribute to the curious boy Koulack once was, enthusiastically discovering Pete Seeger and “Skip to My Lou” for the first time. “I was eleven when I first picked up the banjo. I launched into figuring it out in a big way...playing in the morning, before school, running home to practice at lunch, and then playing more after school,” said Koulack. All these years later, the compositions and performances on Frailing To Succeed teem with the childlike joy and curiosity that originally brought Koulack to the banjo.
On Frailing to Succeed, Koulack is joined by his band the Knappen Street All-star Band, made up of versatile saxophonists Bill Spornitz, Jonnie Bakan and creative percussionist Dan Roy, as well as DON BENEDICTSON on bass and STERFAN BAUER on marimba. The big band instrumentation give this “instrumental” album the flavors of an early Woody Herman record—providing the colors of swing and Klezmer music. These various layers underscore the many talents of the musicians, Koulack’s keen awareness to orchestration, and his bravery in testing creative boundaries. His risk pays off: Frailing to Succeed provides just the sort of warmth needed to sustain through a dark winter in Winnipeg and beyond.