Posts Tagged ‘Tony Trischka’

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String by String: Banjo Secrets Revealed

27 February 2012

As mud season approaches, it’s a good time for pickers to do some “woodsheddin’.” With that in mind, here are some more fun banjo tips from a workshop that five-string guru Tony Trischka ran at last year’s Joe Val Bluegrass Festival:

We often think of creativity as being the manifestation of some primal inner force. Such associations, as well as terms like “free expression,” obscure the fact that creativity is fostered as much by constraint as it is by freedom. That’s why a lot of artists find it useful to impose strictures or rules upon themselves. This might mean painting a picture using just one hue, or writing a poem with lines constructed in alphabetical order. In the case illustrated in this video, Trischka gave himself the assignment of composing brief tunes for single strings of the banjo. It’s clear that none of these compositions were meant to be more than clever diversions. Even so, it’s interesting how Trischka draws different moods from different strings— a new spin on the old idea that every key has its own special flavor.

This clip was put together by Cousin Curly’s Minister of Propaganda, Paul Villanova. As you see, Paul’s got some hot editing licks. I’d take my hat off to him, but my stubble might get singed.

Yer Pal— Curly

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Don’t Fret: Professor Trischka Is Here!

6 February 2012

The Joe Val Bluegrass Festival— New England’s annual rebuke to winter— again looms large. I’m looking forward to catching up with Sierra Hull, The Whites, Della Mae, Blue Highway, Josh Williams and many other acts in a couple of weeks. In the meantime, I still have some fine stuff from the 2011 fest to share.

As I’ve pointed out in the past, the fact that Joe Val takes place indoors makes its workshops unique, in that the performers don’t struggle to hear or be heard. As a result, these sessions are often intimate and informative. As an example, check out banjo ace Tony Trischka as he holds forth in this first of two new videos:

Some musicians, either by inclination or philosophy, seem incapable of revealing anything about the mysteries and insights embedded in their music. They play essentially the same material in a workshop that they would perform on stage. When asked to demonstrate a technique or explain a musical choice, they stammer or bluster for a bit and then play another tune. Not so with Trischka, who is clearly a natural teacher. He comes to these workshops fairly bursting with ideas to share, and for all the attention to technical detail in his remarks, he always brings it all back to the sound and the music. As his adaptation of that almost forgotten musical form, the foxchase, illustrates, he also always has his ears wide open.

If you can’t make it to one of Prof. Trischka’s workshops, don’t fret: he makes house calls, virtually speaking. Like a growing number of “A List” bluegrassers, Trischka gives lessons via online video exchanges. I’m not shilling here, but I heard a couple of satisfied alums of Tony Trischka’s School of Banjo speak up in the Joe Val audience.

The Trischka video clip marks an important new chapter here at Second Cousin Curly World Headquarters. It was edited by Paul Villanova, our new Minister of Propaganda. Thanks to his efforts, the video crackles with wit and vigor. Watch this space for more of his work.

Yer Pal— Curly

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All We Are Saying Is Give Banjos A Chance

25 September 2011

Over the past few months, there has been some interesting to and fro in the letters section of Bluegrass Unlimited about the rising number of bluegrass bands without a fiddler (see postscript below). To be honest, up here in the Frozen North, where many folks come to bluegrass from Celtic music (an even more fiddle-based tradition) or classical training (ditto), I have not detected VFS (Vanishing Fiddler Syndrome) in our area. Banjos, on the other hand, seem to be on the endangered list. That’s right: banjos— for many the bedrock of bluegrass— appear to be an increasingly scarce commodity. We may well be in the midst of a Vanishing Banjo Syndrome outbreak and nobody seems to notice but Yers Truly. Somebody sound the alarm! Make some noise!! Wait a sec: how do you make a racket without banjos?

Not playing the banjo myself, the next best thing I can do to address the banjo shortage is to use this platform to champion five-string masters. I have done this over the past months with posts celebrating the work of Jens Kruger and Tony Trischka. Even so, judging by recent jams I’ve sampled, my efforts have done little to forestall the advance of VBS. Clearly, it’s time to up the ante. Suppose we lived in an alternate universe, one in which all bluegrass bands were required to be composed of no less than fifty percent banjos. What would that sound like? Have a listen…

That is Hot Mustard, the New England bluegrass outfit whose motto is “Two banjos, no waiting!” As I recounted in my previous showcase entry on the group, I heard Hot Mustard before I set eyes on them, and so natural and integrated was their sound that it was only after watching them perform for a while that I noticed the unusual line-up: two banjos, guitar and bass. As they ably demonstrate, given the right degree of taste and control, you can’t have too much of a good thing. And for those of you concerned about VFS, Bill Jubett occasionally puts down his banjo and plays some fiddle, too.

This video features one of the greatest banjo tunes, “Clinch Mountain Backstep.” The quirk that sets it apart from a gazillion other instrumental numbers is the extra beat that gets thrown in halfway through the B part, a feature that makes it what is sometimes called a “crooked” tune. The song was recorded as an instrumental by the Stanley Brothers way back in 1959, but as with much of the Stanley Brothers’ material, the melody sounds much older than that. Alan Jabbour, in his notes on the magisterial collection of fiddle tunes he collected from old time master Henry Reed, posits that “Clinch Mountain Backstep” is an adaptation of a nameless breakdown that Reed said was “old as the mountains.”

You can listen to Reed’s breakdown here and decide if you agree that it’s an antecedent to the Stanley Brothers’ tune. Whatever your verdict, I suspect you’ll agree that it’s the Stanleys’ version that has entered the bluegrass canon. Interestingly, Hot Mustard’s take on “Clinch Mountain Backstep” owes at least as much to Earl Scruggs banjo style as it does to that of Ralph Stanley. There was a time when Scruggs and Stanley defined two distinct approaches to the banjo, the former pioneering a hard-driving three-fingered technique while the latter held onto a sound anchored in the clawhammer tradition. In bringing a style derived more from Scruggs to “Clinch Mountain Backstep,” Hot Mustard’s dual banjoists, Bruce Stockwell and Bill Jubett, emphasize how much common ground there is in these various techniques.

For anyone familiar with the dozens of recorded versions of “Clinch Mountain,” the slow and spare vocal intro, written and sung by April Jubett, will come as a surprise. Those moody a cappella verses at the outset make the first salvo from Bill’s banjo sound like a clarion call. The tune gets even more of an adrenaline charge when Bill passes off to his mentor Bruce.

It all sounds great, which leads us back to the problem I raised at the outset: whither the banjers? Did somebody finally tell one too many banjo jokes? Folks, we didn’t mean it— come on back!

Yer Pal— Curly

P.S.— My favorite contribution to the VFS conversation in Bluegrass Unlimited so far was from John Mahoney of Strasburg, VA. In the September issue, Mahoney— who himself laments the disappearance of fiddlers from the scene— says that one explanation for the phenomenon given to him by bandleaders was that “fiddle players are idiots and hard to get along with.” I would beseech any of my fiddling brethren with anger management issues to keep in mind that these are not the views of Mr. Mahoney or Yers Truly.

P.P.S.— The traditional music site Mudcat Café has an old thread regarding the meaning of “backstep” as it applies to music or dance. The many clever thread participants are unable to verify that any maneuver from square dancing or other American folk dance idioms has an explicit connection to the Stanley Brothers’ famously “crooked” tune. I have also been unable to dig up any evidence that “backstep” applies to a particular type of tune, à la jig or reel. If anybody knows different, let us know!

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Connecting Dots: From Tony Trischka to Bill Monroe

21 May 2011

Perhaps it comes as no surprise to hear this from a guy who claims to be yer second cousin, but bluegrass musicians do all seem to be related— if not genetically then at least professionally. The line-ups in string bands can start to seem like an endless game of connect-the-dots. Am I losing you? All right, as an example, let’s take the fine group that recently performed with banjo ace Tony Trischka

The fiddler is Tashina Clarridge, a well-known fiddling contest champion from the West Coast. Tashina is the sister of Tristan Clarridge, cellist for Crooked Still, the band that has been the subject of an ongoing series of profiles on this site. Indeed, I’ve got to finish up these Crooked Still pieces so that I can start sharing another series of profiles I’ve got “in the can,” these with the Vermont-based group Hot Mustard. And what do you suppose Hot Mustard is doing these days? Why, they’re opening shows for…Tony Trischka & Territory!

Which brings us back around to the line-up in the clip above. The fellow who is belting out the vocals is Michael Daves, a musician based in Brooklyn who just released an album with mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile. The record is called Sleep With One Eye Open and it features a bunch of traditional bluegrass numbers. Here’s a taste of the Thile/Daves collaboration:

In most bluegrass circles, releasing an album with standards like “20/20 Vision” wouldn’t cause much of a stir, but these ain’t yer garden-variety pickers. In recent years, Thile has explored the no-mans-land between traditional music, contemporary pop and classical composition, and Daves— who plays everything from funk to swing— has cited jazz master Yusef Lateef as a major influence. If you root around online a bit, you can find a nice clip of Daves playing Charlie Parker’s “Ornithology.” It is neither particularly high nor lonesome.

Despite these musical wanderings, both Thile and Daves grew up steeped in bluegrass, and it’s heartwarming to see them taking a moment in the prime of their careers to return to those roots. Daves clearly has a sophisticated musical palette at his disposal, but this southern-bred musician seems to appreciate the corrosive tang of bluegrass. In interviews, he has been known to draw connections between Bill Monroe and, uh, Iggy Pop (talk about connecting dots!). When he uses the verb “destroy” to describe a performance, he means it in a good way. This outlook makes Daves an excellent foil for Thile, his gritty delivery providing ballast for Thile’s boundless musical invention.

The Thile/Daves partnership goes back several years. Indeed, you can hear them harmonizing on a 2007 release by— wait for it— Tony Trischka. Yep, on Trischka’s Double Banjo Bluegrass Spectacular, Thile and Daves contribute the vocals for “Run Mountain,” the second tune in the video above. By the way, the fiddle player on the recorded version of “Run Mountain” is Brittany Haas, who currently plays with— you guessed it— Crooked Still.

[We now pause in our delightful connect-the-dots exercise to pose the question, “Hey, isn’t that a phone that Tony Trischka is using as a slide?” We’ll get to that in a minute, but first let’s address an even more pressing query: “Curly, why does the camerawork in your video suck so very badly?” Well, two reasons, actually. First, I’m hurrying to get this post up because Trischka, Thile and Daves are crisscrossing the Northeast at this very moment and I thought some of you might like to catch their acts. This means that I’m sharing video that had to be rushed out of kitchen with scarcely any seasoning. Second, when I was shooting this footage, there was a guy sitting next to me making peerless observations like, “The banjo player is obviously the most mature player in the band.” Oh yes, listen closely to my recording and you’ll hear that and much more from the Sage of Row G. Now, I challenge any of you to keep your framing steady while you’re trying to hurl your shoe at the head of your neighbor. As for the previous question, yes, I do believe Trischka was using the Banjo Slide app on his iPhone. We now rejoin our connect-the-dots game…]

Daves certainly has his own sound, but there’s no doubt that the bluegrass pioneers Charlie and Bill Monroe have heavily influenced both his guitar technique and singing. This musical kinship has apparently caught the attention of folks in Hollywood, where the actor Peter Sarsgaard is pushing to star in a biopic about Bill Monroe. According to Trischka, Daves is slated to provide Monroe’s vocals for the movie, which will have to be rushed to completion if it is to capitalize on Monroe’s centennial next September. The script is by Callie Khouri, who showed that she knew a thing or two about the byways of American culture in her screenplay for Thelma and Louise. It is no coincidence at all that Khouri is married to T Bone Burnett, the famed record producer, who naturally is supposed to supervise the music for the project. Burnett is connected to everybody in bluegrass, if only because he produced the bestselling bluegrass soundtrack to the film O Brother, Where Art Thou? thereby launching a resurgence of interest in bluegrass in particular and American roots music in general. Sadly, I can’t neatly wrap up this bagatelle by reporting that Trischka was part of the pantheon of bluegrass greats who played on O Brother. He has definitely gotten around, but he’s not the bluegrass equivalent of Zelig.

[Parting question: What on earth do the lyrics to “Run Mountain” mean? I, for one, am stumped. Anyone? Anyone?]

Yer Pal— Curly

P.S.— In addition to the Hot Mustard profiles, I’ll have more to offer from Trischka in the not-too-distant future. This five-string superhero plays a key role in a major new documentary about the banjo that is to be released in the fall. Stay tuned for more on this project…

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