Bluegrass musician Jake Schepps’ latest is fueled by contemporary classical composers

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Photo: Jake Schepps Quintet horizontal
Banjo player Jake Schepps, center, and his quintet

Boulder banjo player Jake Schepps looked to unusual sources for his bluegrass quintet's latest disc. After recording arrangements of composer Bela Bartok’s music in 2011, he went in another direction and found four contemporary classical composers to write new music for his group.

Under Schepps’ guidance, the composers listened to his favorite modern bluegrass music and also learned to write for an instrument they rarely encounter in the classical world.

“The banjo was certainly the most enigmatic for the composers,” Schepps said. “The tuning is very narrow relative to a guitar or mandolin and there are certain keys that can be challenging.”

After learning and recording the new pieces with his quintet -- banjo, mandolin, violin, bass and guitar -- Schepps released the results in January on “Entwined."

The music often shifts from passages with a rambling, traditional bluegrass feel to more atmospheric movements. Here’s the video for “Planetary Tuners,” a movement from a piece called “Flatiron” by composer Marc Mellits:

The Jake Schepps Quintet plays several shows in Colorado this weekend: the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley on Thursday; the Chautauqua Community House in Boulder on Friday; the Black Rose Acoustic Society in Colorado Springs on Saturday; and two performances at Dazzle Jazz in Denver on Sunday.

Schepps spoke with Ryan Warner about the new disc, how the musicians in his quintet learned the material and the appeal of Bartok’s music. Click the audio above to hear the interview.

On his initial visits with the composers for “Entwined,” and exposing them to bluegrass music:

"I wanted them to deconstruct it and … come from a place of knowledge in the same way they would write a string quartet from a place of knowledge having studied Haydn and Beethoven string quartets. … So we would get together and I would play banjo for them and sometimes bring another musician and improvise and play tunes for them and [they could] just see how it works."

On what drew him to the music of Bartok, and classical music in general:

"As a folk musician playing banjo I was curious what one of the world’s greatest composers would do with folk music and how would a classically trained composer reexamine folk music. And what could I learn from that as a musician to then bring to the music that I normally play?"

Listen to CPR Classical this weekend to hear performances by the Jake Schepps Quintet recorded this week in the CPR Performance Studio.