KCT Concert presents Jake Schepps & the Expedition Quartet

Jake Schepps (left) and the Expedition Quartet play this Sunday at the Katharine Cornell Theatre. — Photo courtesy of Jake Schepps

Rarely is the Vineyard among the first places on the planet to hear great, just-released music. However this Sunday, Oct. 9, we are invited to witness the debut of something extraordinary and of great potential influence. Banjo player Jake Schepps and his string band, the Expedition Quartet, will present music from their CD, “An Evening in the Village” — a CD that only became available this week.

This CD, and this concert, takes string-band music decisively in a direction that has long begged for treatment with banjo, guitar, fiddle, and bass — the Eastern European folk-based music of Hungarian composer Bela Bartok. After this, it’s easy to imagine that Bartok will join the repertoire of a whole new genre — bluegrass.

Jake Schepps is a new-generation American banjo player whose globe-ranging interests have already brought him face-to-face with such challenging forms as Argentinian tango and Brazilian choro. His choice of Bartok’s themes, with their Hungarian, Romanian, and Bulgarian roots, is therefore on some level not surprising. On the other hand, given the lukewarm reception 20th century classical music often gets, it’s a big gamble he and his fellow band members are taking. Luckily they’ve hit the jackpot.

A century ago Bartok travelled the countryside, hunting down what had only been passed on by ear from musician to musician. He then preserved, harmonized, and presented it in concert halls as key elements in his orchestral and chamber music. The composer collected more than 8,000 folk tunes, adapting many of them to traditional ensembles whose voices were instrumentally balanced: the string quartet, the symphony orchestra. Occasionally Bartok devised ensembles of his own invention, as he did for his “Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta” and his “Contrasts” for violin, clarinet, and piano. The American string band boasts a time-tested balance of its own, and it turns out that Bartok’s material is a natural fit.

Sometimes surging, sometimes dancing deliriously off-kilter, the mesmerizing power of these original folk themes grows every time the old tunes are translated. First distilled by the centuries, then filtered through Bartok, then passed one more time through Jake Schepps’s prism of 21st century American sensibilities (loosened by the spirit of jazz and bluegrass), the themes return in new clothes. They still feel very much like music of the people — modern people. The songs seem so urgent they call for lyrics, a testament to their enduring ability to hook the imagination.

Interweaving the tunes, a common thread in all their many iterations over the centuries, is the voice of the fiddle. Ryan Drickey manages to keep the tunes true simultaneously to their roots, to Bartok, and to Expedition Quartet’s vision. Guitarist Grant Gordy adds an unmistakably modern American glint to the Old World stuff, sometimes to comic effect. Ian Hutchison’s bass, sounding like a whole section of instruments, helps maintain the monumentality of the music, which (being Eastern European and somewhat tragic in nature) tends toward sweeping, panoramic proportions. Jake Schepps’s versatile, style-bending banjo plays many roles including that of the cimbalom, the Hungarian hammered dulcimer.

For the better part of a decade, Gregg Harcourt and Mary Wolverton have presented the Island with opportunities to hear the world’s best acoustic musicians working in celtic and folk traditions. Their KCT Concerts series has earned the trust and loyalty of a solid core audience. Jake Schepps and the Expedition Quartet represents KCT going out on a limb, asking their faithful audience to trust them when they’ve brought home something new and exciting. Sunday’s audience will not be disappointed.

Jake Schepps and Expedition Quartet play at Katharine Cornell Theatre, Vineyard Haven on Sunday, Oct. 9 at 8 pm. An all-volunteer, nonprofit event, this concert is supported in part by a grant from the Martha’s Vineyard Cultural Council. Tickets: $20 at the door or $15 in advance at Aboveground Records, Island Entertainment, Alley’s General Store, The Scottish Bakehouse, and Oak Bluffs General Store. Children admitted free at door. Information: 508-693-6237 or 508-560-2109.