Instrumentalist Aaron Jonah Lewis pays tribute to banjo music and banjo player, Joe Morley, with his new album Mozart of the Banjo: The Joe Morley Project.
Aaron Jonah Lewis has rotated his recording and stage attention among different string instruments, including fiddle, mandolin and guitar. As 2020 begins, the instrumentalist is filling considerable work time in tribute to the banjo and a long-revered banjo player.
With the release of a new album, Mozart of the Banjo: The Joe Morley Project, Lewis is celebrating Morley compositions that have engaged the public beginning at the turn of the 20th century.
“Morley was a very prolific child prodigy; and, in some ways, he represents a style that overlaps with ragtime just like Mozart represents classical music,” Lewis says. “He wrote pieces that stood the test of time, are frequently played and fun to listen to.
“Morley was British, and his style of banjo music has been a little more popular there than here. My dad is British so I felt I was able to explore a connection between America and England that I hadn’t made before.”
The album, all instrumental, will not be officially released until Jan. 24, when it will be available on all the digital platforms, but pre-release copies of the CD are available from the record label, Old-Time Tiki Parlour. A record release party will be held Jan. 16 at The Ark in Ann Arbor to provide concert renditions of the sounds.
The concerts include additional musicians and poetic readings for text-based entertainment. Instrumentalists include Kevin Celestia on piano, Grace van’t Hof on banjo and ukulele and Keaton Butler on cello. Dad Joe Lewis and musician-puppeteer Lindsay McCaw will do the readings.
“Half the album is pieces that have not been recorded before,” says Lewis, who has released dozens of recordings in various styles. “The other half is mostly banjo and piano. There’s one piece that’s banjo and banjo. One piece has double bass and ukulele because it has a Hawaiian theme.”
Other instrumentalists on the album include Ben Belcher (second banjo), Tessa Hartle and Kevin Allswede (piano), Rachel Pearson (bass) and van’t Hof (ukulele). Belcher interested Lewis in the possibilities of banjo when using it to play bluegrass and gave Lewis an old banjo to get him started. The two later formed a band.
“The banjo has nylon strings rather than wire strings so it’s more mellow,” Lewis says. “It’s like a classical guitar.”
Lewis, 38, who is based in southwest Detroit and teaches instrumental students, was a violin performance major at Interlochen before being introduced to folk styles by a friend met through a Habonim Dror program in Israel.
A full-time entertainer, Lewis can be heard as a soloist and band member whose affiliations have included the Corn Potato String Band and Lovestruck Balladeers. He has won top awards at country music festivals and conducted workshops in Europe.
“I want people to have a chance to be exposed to this kind of banjo music,” says Lewis, at the helm of a local square dance group. “I want them to come with me back to a time before recorded music.
“Back then, if you wanted to hear music, you had to learn how to play an instrument yourself or persuade someone to play music for you. These days, it’s kind of hard to imagine a world like that because music is everywhere, from the car to the drugstore.
“I also associate the banjo with all the wonderful people I’ve met through my pursuit of music. Whenever I play or even hold the instrument, I think of those people, and there’s a lot of happy memories.”
Aaron Jonah Lewis will hold a record release concert at 8 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 16, at The Ark in Ann Arbor, $20, (734) 761-1818