I’m excited to be joining Rebecca Frazier‘s band Hit & Run Bluegrass this summer. Her new album “When We Fall” is being released on Compass Records, and we’ll be traveling in support of it. There are dates around the South East in May and June, and in Colorado in July. For more information about that, check out our Schedule. The band consists of Rebecca Frazier of guitar, John Frazier on Mandolin, Shad Cobb on fiddle, and myself on the 5-string. It’s real hard-drivin’ grass. The players are all great and I’m honored to be a part of it.
Back in November a rather unfortunate series of events involving a weak gig bag, concrete, and UPS resulted in the breaking of my only banjo neck multiple times. Shortly thereafter I purchased a new ‘Hot-Rod’ of a banjo from Robin Smith. I’ve been playing that while Robin re-built the neck on the ODE that had been destroyed. I got the ODE from Robin in the mail a few weeks ago, and couldn’t be happier with the neck he made. I’ve been keeping it tuned in E ( a minor third below typical G tuning, the notes are: e B E G# B).
I had the idea to record something with both banjos, and began to ponder the possibilities. We’ve all heard a double-banjo tune before, usually a melody with a higher, mostly tertiary harmony. Its the same harmonization technique that’s typically used for Bluegrass and Folk vocals. And it works well with human voices; but something gets lost in translation onto the banjo. So I figured, why not try to get the banjo’s as far apart as possible. It starts with 2 different tunings (G and E), but there’s still a lot of overlap there. You really need a key where the chords can be voiced differently on the 2 instruments. The lowest string on the E banjo is a B, which happens to be one of the highest capo positions on a G banjo: so B is the key. And what better banjo tune in B than Herschel Sizemore’s “Rebecca”.
So I climbed into the control room at Studio 94 and went to it.
This recording is what came out.
I spent a few weeks down south in April on some very exciting musical endeavors. The first of which was the Acoustic Music Seminar, hosted by the Savannah Music Festival, and organized by Mike Marshall. It was a week of workshops and creative collaboration between many of the best young string musicians in the country, and the ‘faculty’ including Mike Marshall, Tony Trischka, Edgar Meyer, and Julian Lage. I feel completely honored to have been a part of this event. It was a truly priceless experience to sit in a small room and discuss the creative process and compositional and arranging ideas with some of the players who have influenced me the most. Particularly Julian Lage. He conveys the sounds he hears to his audience in a more honest, and more complete way than most any other performer I’ve ever seen. I’m inspired not only by his compositional and improvisational abilities (which are completely out of this world), but the direction in which he is taking his music. Much of the Acoustic Music Seminar was spent discussing the balance between representing tradition and creating with your own voice. In my mind Julian’s work has achieved that balance. He is pushing the instrumentation boundaries a bit with the cello and hand percussion, but more importantly he is moving away from traditional 32 bar forms and 4 chorus solos and focusing on what a piece of music really needs to say (or doesn’t need to say). This newer type of architecture is still held together by beautifully simple melodies and movement that seems as if it were the only sensible option, to create music (maybe jazz) that is intellectual, but timelessly easy to listen to.
I also spent good time with Tony Trischka in Savannah. Of course Tony is one of my heros, and one of the great banjo players of all time. His touch on the instrument is so brutal and in-your-face, if his banjo were a person I think he’d be arrested for assault. But fortunately it’s just a banjo, and he makes it sing. I’m always on the edge of my seat playing with Tony, waiting for the next crazy idea that he’s going to force out of the 5-string. That’s not to say that Tony cant play sweet too, he certainly can. But I always find myself gravitating to his early albums, ‘Banjo Land’ and ‘Bluegrass Light’ where he’s just knockin the doors off the place.
The musicians of Tony Trischka and Mike Marshall’s generation had a much different balance of tradition and creativity in their music than we do today. My generation has access to so much music and information that it becomes a more complex situation for us than it was for our predecessors. Weeding through whats out there to find something that really speaks to you is hard. The result of not finding something you really relate to is becoming a ‘jack of all trades, master of none’. I’d say that’s the plight of the advancing musician in 2012. A week with my ‘co-workers’ of sorts and some heavy mentors really helped me to locate whats important in my musical life, and I feel pretty good about it. I’m writing more, with the goal of a solo album getting closer all the time.
Also while down south, I went to Merlefest for the Banjo Contest, and took 2nd place. The contest was judged by Pete Wernick, Mark Shatz, and Weston Stewart (last years winner). They wrote a nice paragraph about me, which you can find here. This year I have arranged ‘Redwing’, ‘Jerusalem Ridge’, and ‘Road To Columbus’. I have not yet recorded them, but have plans to soon. I still need to arrange one more tune for Winfield this September. It’s a neat scene at the banjo contests, lots of very talented players doing all kinds of things, and everyone’s pretty dang nice to one another. I saw a few players I met last year at Winfield competing at Merlefest this year, and I look forward to seeing them again at Winfield #41.
The past few weeks have brought some interesting work, and challenges. Mainly I’ve been practicing my part of 3 scores written by pianist Brendan Cooney. The music accompanies 3 silent films from 1923 starring Buster Keaton. The films are full of physical comedy and wild stunts, Buster seems to defy gravity and human fragility with his trips, jumps, and falls. Brendan’s new scores are quite fitting, lots of rags featuring the “stride” piano technique that feels just right with the grainy black and white projection. These bouncy piano themes join some banjo tunes, some clarinet led hot-jazz, some textural soundscapes, and the 90 year old films to create a really funny viewing experience. And I’m not saying this as an advertisement, I’m saying it honestly because I’ve seen it about 50 times now, and it’s hilarious. (Click HERE for show details)
The challenge in this event is that these scores are on long, complicated charts of standard notation, something banjo players are generally not very happy to see. Fortunately for me, Brendan happens to be a banjo player too, so he put the “banjo-istic” parts in tablature for me, but the majority of the parts are standard notation, or rhythmic notation. Of course, just as any good 20’s era film score, it’s covered up in diminished chords. Also fortunately for me, I’m pretty comfortable with reading charts like these, otherwise I might not have been able to get this job. That fact got me to thinking about the ability to “read”.
In a way there’s almost two musical worlds, one where charts are a regular part of the job, and one where nobody understands how to read a chart. And they’re equally valid places. For players who work in GB bands, theatre, studio sessions, and big bands reading is a part of every job they get. On the other hand, for players in rock bands, jam bands, bluegrass bands, and just about anything else one might label a “band” reading a real chart is unheard of. There may be a piece of paper that says what order the sections of the song occur, but they never read standard or rhythmic notation or key signatures on a staff. But both groups of musicians are able to work professionally, and even achieve equally high levels of success.
It’s kind of funny if you think about it. You would never go see a surgeon who didn’t know the names of their tools, or the parts of the human body regardless of their reputation for doing good work. Music and surgery are so far from each other though, that an “untrained” person is still perfectly capable of doing great work.
I guess the only difference is the type of work they’re capable of doing. Music created from a place of honest emotion, to convey a certain feeling or message (weather it’s creator is trained or not) is almost always going to be good. But when someone hires you to record banjo for a cat food commercial they don’t want you to play what’s in your heart, they want you to play what’s on the page. And they’d like you to get it right the first time. I’d prefer to play just what I want to all the time, and maybe one of these days I will, but not this week.
This week I recorded banjo for a character in the Czech Republic similar to ‘Alvin & The Chipmunks’ and for a French Canadian kids cartoon. Both were great learning experiences, and there will be some folks in costumes dancing around on stage in other parts of the world to my banjo playing, which makes me happy. I was able to get both of these gigs because I can read music.
I’m not trying to pick on people who can’t read, I’m just saying that in this modern musical world of diversification every skill helps, and reading has helped me quite a bit. Not to mention its benefits during the compositional process and studying harmony, which is another post for another time.
SHAMELESS SELF PROMOTION:
The Buster Keaton Silent Films with new, live scores will be playing this Friday, March 30th at:
Tickets are $10 and can be purchased in advance here or at the door.
Here’s a scene from one of the shorts with Brendan’s music and a few shots of the band live.
One of the things I’ve been focused on lately is Bluegrass. That may sound funny coming from a banjo player, but it’s true. I’ve taken a very unique path on the banjo, one that involves understanding lots of styles and elements of music (jazz harmony and improv, classical, South Indian rhythmic concepts, etc.) as well as bluegrass. Of course, the sounds of The Del McCoury Band and Flatt & Scruggs are what originally drew me to the banjo and to bluegrass, but I quickly digressed by discovering Tony Trischka and Bela Fleck. The more I came to know about their playing and influences, the further down the rabbit hole I went, leaving Earl and J.D. behind for a while.
In the past year I’ve come to realize how much depth there really is in straight ahead bluegrass banjo. Sammy Shelor really opened my eyes to this. His timing and tone are impeccable, and his vocabulary is so spot on. He always plays exactly what should be played,(and nothing else) and his attention to dynamics is the icing on the cake. Sammy says that he tries to play what the singer sings, nothing more, and I believe that’s where the true art of bluegrass banjo is hidden. Earl and J.D. are both masters of this skill. Listen to them kick off a handfull of different songs and you’ll notice they can phrase the same pieces of standard banjo vocabulary in so many different ways to emulate almost exactly how the singer will sing the chorus. Their kick-offs often go as far as copying a vocal embellishment of the melody. Coupled with their knowledge of the melody is their excellent local timing and a sense of where they fit into the grove.
From Flatt & Scruggs, to J.D. Crowe & the New South, to The Lonesome River Band there are vastly different concepts for groove, feel, and beat placement, and each banjoist fits perfectly into their respective setting. It’s not that one style or player is more right or any better than another, but that these players listen far beyond the notes they choose.
Of course this whole phenomenon started with Earl Scruggs, not because he “invented” 3 finger banjo, but because he swept the world with his combination of influences and skills pouring through the 5-string like nobody else had ever done. He’s been followed by everyone from J.D. Crowe to Noam Pikelny, including myself. Followed with varying degrees of accuracy, and to varying degrees of success. The followers who’ve been most well received are those who’ve managed to modify bluegrass banjo into their own style without alienating the fundamental concepts and sound. As a “modern” banjo player I can say that players like myself are often guilty of grouping all these trad. guys together, and then putting them in a box that collects dust while we chase after Tony, Bela, and Noam’s illusive innovations on the 5-String.
There’s a sort of a double standard in Bluegrass music. The overall musicianship and chops of bluegrass musicians have come a long way since the early days, now it’s common to hear flashy guitar and fiddle solos that stray far away from the melody and imply harmonic contexts other than what the band is playing. If the banjo player takes such liberties, however, he’s probably not going to get called back for the next gig. This used to frustrate (I might go as far as to say “offend”) me. I work very hard at understanding and learning as much about music as I can, and to see blank faces and hear no applause for my fast complex ideas only seconds after an uproar for the fiddle players’ fast complex ideas is very disappointing, and even disheartening. When a Bluegrass audience sees a banjo, they know what they want to hear. Somehow the other instruments (excluding bass) have escaped this. I wrestled with this concept for a long time, at times restraining my playing to please crowds, and at other times playing only for myself.
Eventually it dawned on me, with some help from Igor Stravinsky, that within this expectation lies my power as a performer. Stravinsky writes in “Poetics of Music in the form of 6 Lessons” that standards actually enable creativity:
My freedom thus consists in my moving about within the narrow frame that I have assigned to myself for each one of my undertakings. I shall go even further: my freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more I surround myself with obstacles. – Igor Stravinsky
That’s why J.D., Sammy Shelor, Ron Block, and Robby McCoury have been so successful in the Bluegrass world. They’ve taken the house that Earl built and remodeled it without compromising any of it’s structural integrity. Sure they’ve knocked down a wall or two, put a new one up somewhere else, installed some new appliances and fixtures, but it’s still that same old house we all grew up in, and don’t we love them for fixin’ it up for us.
So I’ve learned not to be chained by an audiences expectations of me, but rather to let what they expect inform my decisions so that I can be challenged and they can be happy.
With all this in mind, I sat down this morning and recorded the banjo classic, “Fireball Mail”.
Ok friends and neighbors, I’ve been hard at work on 2 new lessons and the sheet music/tab to accompany them. And now, for the first time ever, here they are:
Both about 20 minutes long.
Also, my LESSONS page has been updated to include some info on my teaching philosophy and practice techniques, and what my “Advanced Banjo Curriculum” can do for you, Today!! (at least starting today!)