Written by Hrayr Attarian
Ashley & Simpson Off to Here Land
Jennifer Ashley — Tenor banjo (1, 3, 4, 6, 7, 10), vocals
Joel Simpson — Guitar (3–7, 9–12), mandolin (3, 11), vocals
Max ZT — Hammered dulcimer (1)
Mark Dvorak — Guitar (2)
Dan Heinz — Drums (4, 7, 10, 12)
Geoff Dolce — Violin (5, 10)
Victor Garcia — Trumpet (7)
Michael Kowal — Trombone (7)
John Otto — Clarinet (7)
The Chicago-based Ashley & Simpson is an acoustic duo made up of innovative musicians Jennifer Ashley and Joel Simpson. With their artistry firmly rooted in classic Americana, the pair brings a refreshingly individual touch to the folk repertoire. Their 2017 debut Winnie was a narrative work of all-original material. Their follow-up, Off to Here Land, is a reinterpretation of a dozen folk standards with occasional stylistic forays into jazz.
The delightful “Maggie Blues” creates the exuberant atmosphere of early twentieth-century New Orleans bandstands. Trumpeter Victor Garcia blows burnished notes, clarinetist John Otto contributes warm, bittersweet tones, and trombonist Michael Kowal tailgates with gusto behind Ashley’s resonant tenor banjo and Simpson’s crisp guitar chords. The vocals, rich with emotion, rise over the group’s riotous sound, driven by drummer Dan Heinz’s rumbling beats.
This cross-genre experimentation is less successful on the medley of trumpeter Miles Davis’ “All Blues” and “The Rising Sun Blues.” Dulcimer virtuoso Max ZT brings an intriguingly medieval sound to the former’s main theme while Ashley, accompanying herself on banjo, and Simpson sing with vibrant melancholy and moving passion. The track, however, does not coalesce into a single piece—instead, it remains two well-performed, adjacent segments.
Elsewhere on this engaging album the artists are more in their element. For instance, the country tune “Long Black Veil” is hauntingly delivered. Ashley & Simpson meld their strings and voices into a sublime and mournful song that is simultaneously raw and honest.
Equally memorable is their rendition of the Peruvian folk tune “El Condor Pasa,” with English lyrics by Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel. Over violinist Geoff Dolce’s lush refrains and Simpson’s reverberating chords, the duo’s singing rises and falls in impressionistic vamps—conjuring images of blue skies over the Andes.
Remarkably unique, Off to Here Land sheds a contemporary light on this timeless music—making it accessible without sacrificing its integrity. The recording, however, is not a mere preservation effort. It highlights the contemporary relevance of these gems as well as Ashley & Simpson’s brilliant creativity.