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Getting the Bends with Tony Trischka

By Brian L. Knight

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In a period when bluegrass is reigning supreme, when the likes of Tony Furtado, Leftover Salmon, Blueground Undergrass, Darol Anger/Mike Marshall Band, Smokin’ Grass, String Cheese Incident and Bela Fleck and the Flecktones are experiencing unprecedented response from their forays into jazz, fusion and bluegrass, we cannot forget about the roots and influences of this present wave of finger picking popularity. Of course, most bluegrass roots point back to the early recordings of Flatt and Scruggs, Vassar Clements or Bill Monroe, for these musicians mastered the bluegrass idiom and laid a foundation for all future bluegrass music to evolve from. In the mid-1970s, bluegrass began its crossover relationship with jazz. Most notably, David Grisman led the attack with his "Dawg music". In a similar fashion, banjo player Tony Trischka was one of the first pioneers in bluegrass/jazz fusion. Besides having the moniker as "Bela Fleck’s mentor", Trischka, a native of Syracuse, New York, has also been involved with innovative bluegrass bands such as Pyschograss and Skyline. Every step of the way, Trischka strove to push the accepted music boundaries to their limits. To some degree, he has "bent" those boundaries and that is exactly what he has done in his latest release, Bend (Rounder Records). In throwing a musical "changeup", Trischka recently added a little rock and roll to his musical equation with the presence of a saxophonist Michael Amendola, guitarist Glenn Sherman, drummer Grisha Alexiev and bassist Marco Accattatis. To coincide with this new approach, the Tony Trischka Band hit the festival circuit this past summer where his music was readily embraced by a whole legion of hungry bluegrass fans. In between his touring and playing, the Vermont Review spoke to Trischka from his home in Fairlawn, New Jersey where he was chaotically amidst purchasing a new home.

VR: You started playing the banjo in 1963. Did you play any other instrument prior to the banjo?

TT: I started with the flute and then went to piano and then basically folk guitar. With the flute and piano, it was sort of a thing that I was forced to do, but once I got to the guitar, I loved it.

VR: What made you make the transition from the guitar to the banjo?

TT: I heard "Charlie and the MTA" by the Kingston Trio(1963). A big hit back in the folk era – early 1960s. There is banjo breakdown there that their banjo player, Dave Guard, played and it completely thrilled me. At that moment, I decided I had to play the banjo.

VR: Were there any other banjo players who were your peers when you first picked up the instrument?

TT: Fortunately, there was one guy, when I was in high school with at the time, who was going to College near me. He was playing bluegrass style banjo which was the style I wanted to play. I wrapped up to him quickly and started taking lessons from him. I was fortunate to somebody around who knew the style.

VR: Have you seen him since then?

TT: Yeah, we are still friendly – he is living out in San Francisco but we stay in touch.

VR: It seems that many banjo players owe a lot to Flatt and Scruggs. Is that true for you as well?

TT: Oh, absolutely. Particularly Earl Scruggs. I wouldn’t be doing any of this without him. He codified what was already out there. People were playing three finger style before Earl, but he, I wouldn’t say he perfected it, but he smoothed it out and added a whole lot of things to it. He had great right hand rhythm. He ended up playing with Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys in 1946 at the Grand Ole Opry where a lot of people heard his style. So he was extremely influential – to anybody who played. Nobody would be playing bluegrass banjo without Earl Scruggs. He is the godfather of it all.

VR: When you switched from guitar to banjo, was that a difficult transition?

TT: For me, it was fairly simple because I was already finger picking on the guitar so I had some of that down. The second, third and fourth strings of the banjo are the same as the second, third and forth strings of the guitar. So they are definitely similar. The only odd thing is the shortened fifth string on the side of the neck. For some reason, that never proved to be a problem. It was all a very natural transition for me.

VR: The banjo has a percussive sound. Is there any relationship between a drum and the banjo?

TT: There is a drum head so there is very obviously a relationship except in bluegrass bands you generally do not use the drumheads, you just use it to vibrate through. The fact that you have metal finger-picks on a bluegrass banjo, you have metal against metal strings. This creates a sharpened hack that has a percussive edge to it. I have heard recordings of banjo players on a bad tape and you are getting levels of distortion that make it sound like drums. The rhythmic patterns are very syncopated.

VR: The banjo originates in Africa. Why is it that an instrument that can trace itself back to Africa be is mostly played by white musicians?

TT: Part of it is that the banjo came to prominence, in a commercial way, in minstrel shows, in the mid 1800’s, when the banjo was really one of the main instruments associated with the minstrel scene. Minstrels had extremely objectionable racial stereotypes and so I think blacks might have played the guitar instead of the banjo. It’s associated with the minstrel shows and slavery because a lot of the minstrel shows would feature blacks on the plantation, a happy black on the plantation in slavery, but happy with their white master, so the association stuck. It’s also associated with that white southern hillbilly thing because of Deliverance. But blacks do play it, Taj Mahal plays banjo, and I met a guy up in Harlem who wanted to learn to play the banjo so he could rap to the banjo.

VR: That would be a whole new sense of fusion wouldn’t it?

TT: Yeah. I played with him for a little bit where he would rap to my banjo playing and it’s great, it’s wonderful because its very rhythmic and syncopated.

VR: On your latest album you play the Didlake Banza. Please explain.

TT: It’s basically an instrument that’s a predecessor of the banjo. It’s basically what the slaves played. A man named Scott Didlake From Mississippi made, but unfortunately passed away a few years ago, but his whole thing was that he wanted to honor the memory of all the blacks that died in unmarked graves, and black musicians, the banjo players, the harmonica players who died unknown and were lost in history. It’s made from a gourd. The one that he made for me from a gourd in Africa. It’s a very powerful thing it has that connection to Africa.

VR: Jumping ahead, your new album, does it signify a change in the way that you are playing.

TT: Yes and No. In a way no because my first two records which were just released together on a CD called The Early Years (Rounder), but they were from 73 and 74 and even on my third record I would have one or two songs that had that kind of sound-drums, sax, bass, bunch of guitar. I was doing that back then, but never put a band together to do that kind of music until about three years ago. It seems new because I’ve been primarily doing acoustic music for all these years and yet its just revisiting something I’ve already done and expanding on it, kind of carrying to the next step.

VR: Was it something you just shelved for a while or didn’t want to focus on?

TT: No, it was never a conscious thing because I listened to a lot of electric music. I listened to a lot of rock and roll. I listened to the Beatles. I listened to Miles Davis. I was very into fusion music in the early seventies…Mahavishnu, Chick Corea, Weather Report, groups who were combining jazz and rock, and so it was a natural extension for me to do tunes like that on my records. It was never a thing I particularly wanted to do. It wasn’t something I didn’t want to do; I just never thought about it. I naturally went in the more acoustic direction, but then a few years ago I started thinking that it would be something that I wanted to pursue. It seemed like the time was right time for whatever reason. It’s interesting because I had just gone through a period in the earlier nineties of exploring the roots of the banjo which [led to] my World Turning CD . I have a show that I do only very occasionally these day, a six piece group with a narrator doing the history of the banjo with quotes, and so I went from doing this historical aspect to really pushing the progressive side of things again.

VR: Do you think that with this change in your music that the crowds/people appreciating your music has changed?

TT: To some extent. We are still getting the acoustic crowd, but we are also seeing some of the younger crowd coming out also. Which had already begun to happen, I think in part because of Bela Fleck. I used to give him lessons when he first started and he credits me sometimes in interviews, and so I think some of his audience is starting to check me out. There are all these kids out there who are looking for music besides what you hear on MTV. There is a whole audience that is looking for music that is a little more experimental…that combines rock and jazz and bluegrass.

VR: Skyline and Psychograss are those just acoustic bluegrass outfits?

TT: Skyline was a band I played with throughout the 80’s and we were acoustic, but kind of combining bluegrass with some more pop sort of things, not strictly bluegrass. Psychograss was an instrumental group that had some very hot players in it, a few guys from California like Mike Marshall, Daryl Anger, Todd Phillips. We played at the Merle Watson festival this year. We get together once a year. Its just that we are all scattered around the country…Its more of an acoustic thing, but again kind of stretching the boundaries. We play a Jimi Hendrix tune, Third Stone From the Sun.

VR: Is it just a coincidence that you and Bela both picked up a saxophonist on your latest albums?

TT: It is just a coincidence. When I first put this band together, about four years ago, I felt like I wanted to have a fiddle player in the group so I could get a fairly bluegrassy sound, and yet combine it with drums and electric guitar. We rehearsed for a while and then put a saxophone in. If you have a group with a guitar . There are so few banjo led bands.

VR: On your new album, does the album title, Bend, represent what you are trying to do with the boundaries of music?

TT: You know, it is funny because originally the tune Bend, which I wrote it three or four years ago, uses something called a "Keith tuner" which is an integral part to the tune. It kind of de-tunes and tunes back up again. The note bends in the tune, so that is why I called it Bend. I think we had nothing left and then I was trying to think of tune to use as the title track and Bend seemed kind of snappy and quick little short sound byte. It was only after that we discovered other meanings for the tune. Only retrospect was the name title seem intentional.

VR: You mentioned your love of jazz-fusion groups like Mahavishnu Orchestra and Return To Forever. What other jazz musicians do you think you emulate?

TT: Who do I emulate? I can’t say that I emulate anyone. I am not a jazz player. Bela, for instance, can play like Charlie Parker, you know, play be-bop on the banjo. I have toyed with that on occasions- worked on Charlie Parker hits, but I never spent the kind of time that Bela did because I spent a little more of my time on bluegrass. I did spend the time that he did in scales. What I got from jazz was the idea that you don’t have to be stuck into one sort of thing. That was great about fusion because it was taking jazz and mixing rock and classical influences. We weren’t composing in a Bebop or Cool Jazz style; we were just playing whatever we felt. And that is how I feel about the music that I put together. I love bluegrass music but it is such a very specific thing that I would never be able sit and play bluegrass for the rest of my life. When I am playing in some weird key or chords, I need to be able to feel like I am free to do that and play my own music. Having these incredible, wonderful, and versatile musicians in the band, I can do that.

VR: Your latest piece of promotional material released by Rounder Records had this following praising quote by Mike Gordon of Phish: "When I first saw Tony play many years ago, I was instantly mesmerized -- not because of his technical prowess or innovative style, but because of his willingness to journey into scary, unpredictable territory. This album combines some of that element, almost like the joyous darkness of klezmer, with a modern tightness and brightness. The result is energized and crisp; if many of the sounds that I put into my stereo seem to remain dormant, sitting inside the speakers, this is a sound that actually makes it out into the middle of the room where I am standing." Gordon obviously holds your work in high regard. What do you think of Phish’s sound?

TT: I like their music a lot. I think they are going at it with the same attitude. They can have long extended jams or they have short 2 minutes numbers. They cover a lot of different bases. Again, there is that "trapped style" thing. They can stretch way out in concert and do a whole side of an album. (A piece of trivia: Tony Trischka’s orthodontist was Jonathan Fishman’s father)

VR: The 1975 album "old and In the Way" turned a lot of people, who have heard of bluegrass, onto the idiom. As a seasoned player, what do you think of the album?

TT: The players on the album were great. Jerry was a good banjo player, he wasn’t a monstrous banjo player, but he was good. The album didn’t have a huge impact on me because I was into bluegrass long before it came out. I was listening to the likes of Flatt and Scruggs. For me, those people (Flatt and Scruggs, Bill Monroes) were the original guys so I would compare some of the recordings, like Pig in a Pen, to the original versions. To me, you just can’t beat those original recordings. The same thing applies to let The Circle be Unbroken by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band which also turned a lot of people onto bluegrass.

For a tremendously good CD, check out Trischka’s Bend on Rounder Records. It won’t let you down.