The Kruger Brothers, Jens and Uwe, first heard American roots music when their father brought folk records home to Switzerland from his business trips. They struck out on their own as street musicians, Jens on banjo and Uwe on guitar, when they were sixteen, and in the small Swiss musical market they had to master a variety of genres. Jens Kruger came to the U.S. in 1982, where he studied bluegrass for several months under Bill Monroe. Returning to Switzerland with instructions to develop his own style, he spent what he describes as days and nights learning as many tunes as he could. In 1986, he and Uwe added American bassist Joel Landsberg to form the direct ancestor of their current trio, the Kruger Brothers.
The brothers have a sort of mystical love of Appalachian culture and landscape that shows up in their music. After making a splash at North Carolina’s Merlefest in 1997 and gaining a small but intense coterie, they settled in North Carolina in 2003. Their playing combines a meditative, conversational feel with extreme instrumental rigor and detail; Jens Kruger is one of the fastest banjo players on the planet when he wants to be, but most often he applies his speed to subtle ornament and elaboration. Banjo players know him as the source of techniques unheard of elsewhere in the instrument’s world.
The majority of the brothers’ pieces are instrumental; those with lyrics on their latest release, Between the Notes, involve an old man sneaking out of a nursing home, a bluegrass treatment of a love poem by Christina Rossetti, various people who reflect on the impermanence of life while watching clouds roll by, the aftermath of a late winter storm with spring in the air, and a depiction of the figure of Jason from the mythical story of the golden fleece. The music still features a banjo as lead instrument, but the brothers point out that they’re not a bluegrass band–there’s no fiddle or mandolin–and bluegrass is less pervasive now than influences that seem to come from the world of classical music: Between the Notes is full of Renaissance-era modal harmonies that make the banjo sound like a rich-voiced and somewhat twangier lute. There are hints of jazz, and even of minimalism, all boiled down to a very tight trio format. Most pieces qualify as complex, but they never lose a relaxed, luminous quality.
The Kruger Brothers appeal to those who enjoy the forward edge of new acoustic music–Darol Anger, Bela Fleck, maybe Chris Thile or Nickel Creek. But the mixture of elements in their music is unique, and the visitor to their concerts has a very strong sense of having entered a charmed corner of the musical universe. The Kruger Brothers come to the Ark, where they have a devoted group of fans, on February 11.