Andrew Tuttle’s fifth album begins with a sense of being untethered and adrift, washes of abstract sound floating through the mix, a feeling of disorientation dominating. You might be reminded of the famed opening sequence of Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, The Wrath Of God, with Popol Vuh’s uncanny soundtrack accompanying the misty visuals of 16th-century conquistadors trudging through a treacherous Amazon rainforest. Where are we? How did we get here? Tuttle isn’t one to let his listeners drown in a whirlpool of confusion, however. After a minute or so, his resonant, reassuring five-string banjo appears like a beacon in the night, grounding us, guiding us safely down to earth. For this particular adventure, we can rest easy. We’re in good hands.
The banjo is a tricky instrument, one so associated with specific strains of folk, bluegrass and country music that it can come across as a cliché –an all-too-familiar signifier of rootsy flavours and faux-downhome vibes. But some musicians have risen to the challenge of finding fresh new possibilities, from stars like Béla Fleck and Rhiannon Giddens to somewhat more obscure iconoclasts like George Stavis (whose 1969 solo deconstruction of “My Favorite Things” has to be heard to be believed) and Nathan Bowles, who has spent several recent LPs exploring the instrument’s outer limits. There’s a lot of music to be found in the banjo, you just have to know where to look.
Andrew Tuttle definitely knows where to look. Over the course of his four previous albums, the Brisbane-based musician has carved out a comfortable niche for himself, one where trad-based soulfulness peacefully coexists with ambient, experimental and new age leanings. He’s an essentially melodic player – not too many sharp edges here – but with an inquisitiveness and imagination that keeps things from being too cosy. While his chosen instrument will always carry with it folk connotations, Tuttle seems dedicated to uncovering its cosmic qualities. His spacious and captivating 2020 LP Alexandra felt like a breakthrough in this respect; Fleeting Adventure is even better.
This is not a solo banjo affair, however. Far from it. On Fleeting Adventure, Tuttle has gathered an all-star cast of characters to help bring his ambitious visions to life. Back to that opening track, the glorious, seven-minute “Overnight’s A Weekend”. Here, Tuttle’s plaintive banjo is encircled by an array of majestic sounds: serpentine electric guitar via Steve Gunn, enveloping electronics courtesy of Balmorhea’s Michael A Muller, violin swirls from Aurélie Ferrière, and the gentle saxophone of Joe Saxby. The result is a lush and unabashedly beautiful sonic landscape, but Tuttle is painting more than just a pretty picture.
The musicians spread across the album’s seven tracks are separated by vast distances, from Stockholm to San Francisco, from Brooklyn to Texas. More than anything, Fleeting Adventure celebrates the feeling of global connectivity that this kind of far-flung collaboration can foster, digital files sent across oceans that alchemize into moments of genuine magic. We hear Tuttle broadcasting signals through the ether and his friends answering back, a marvelous and heartening call-and-response. Made in the thick of a global pandemic, with the players often locked down in their respective locations, the results aren’t simply a wonder of modern technology. They’re downright miraculous.
One of Tuttle’s collaborators, Chuck Johnson, deserves a special call-out. Not only did he mix Fleeting Adventure (alongside Lawrence English), giving the entire record an uncluttered, widescreen sheen to even its most intricate passages, but he also contributed as an instrumentalist to one of the album’s highlights. One of the leading lights of the burgeoning cosmic pedal-steel scene, Johnson adds his slo-mo tones to “Correlation”, an ideal complement to Tuttle’s shimmering banjo plucks, conjuring up a hopeful sunrise, delivering a ready-made meditative state of mind to the listener. More pedal-steel goodness wafts in from Nashville, thanks to Luke Schneider (whose brilliant 2020 solo LP Altar Of Harmony is well worth seeking out), who sends luminous smoke rings of sound curlicueing through “Next Week, Pending” and “New Breakfast Habit”.
Fleeting Adventure’s closer, “There’s Always A Crow”, finds Tuttle on his own, or at least without any human company. Here, he communes with the natural world, with various feathered friends (including, yes, a crow) duetting with his rippling playing. There’s nothing wildly innovative about using field recordings in this type of music, but Tuttle makes it feel impressively fresh, the song’s momentum steadily building until things begin to break down in lovely, atmospheric fashion, that crow continuing to squawk in the distance. Perfect harmony? Not quite. But close enough.