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Published: 1999/07/15
by Bob Makin

Tony Trischka: Where No Banjo Has Gone Before

You think about somebody like Miles Davis or John Coltrane, people who learned everything about jazz and then digested it and it came out a new way. I think Tony’s very similar. He’s that kind of figure in the banjo world. Tony was ahead of his time. My springboard was Tony Trischka, and without Tony, none of what’s happened with my music would have happened. — Bela Fleck

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. — Mike Gordon of Phish

Progressive bluegrass pioneer Tony Trischka taught banjo to Bela Fleck, the closest thing to a household name in progressive bluegrass. As a thank you, Fleck has turned his audience onto his former teacher, much like Dave Matthews Band has turned his audience onto Fleck.

As a result, more people than ever before are aware of just how awesome Trischka’s fusion of bluegrass, funk, jazz, rock, chamber music and, at times, even heavy metal, is. Trischka, who took the late Jerry Garcia’s place in the 1997 reunion of the early ’70s bluegrass band Old and In the Way, is hoping that the young jam scene that digs Fleck, Matthews, as well as Phish and Medeski, Martin and Wood, checks out his new Rounder disc, “Bend.” The record marks the studio debut of Tony Trischka Band: funk bassist Marco Accattatis, jazz saxophonist Michael Amendola, Southern rock guitarist-vocalist Glenn Sherman and jazz drummer Grisha Alexiev. Recording for Rounder since 1974 as a solo artist and since 1971 with the band Country Cooking (also for several other labels with such bluegrass groups as Skyline, Psychograss, Grass Is Greener and Big Dogs), Trischka was determined to assemble an eclectic band so that he could stretch the boundaries of banjo music even further than he has since his “Bluegrass Light” debut. Imagine a cross between the Grand Ole Opry and the Fillmore East, John McLaughlin and Earl Scruggs, and you’ve got an idea of what Trischka’s music sounds like. I spoke with the New Jersey resident/New York native about his musical®evolution, his new band, his in-roads to the jam scene and his relationship with Fleck. Buckle your seatbelt, Scotty, because we’re going where no banjo has gone before.

But before we go, I just wanted to let you know that you can get a taste of Trischka live when he performs later this month at Berkfest ’99, the details of which are elsewhere at JamBands.com

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BM: How long have you lived in Fair Lawn, N.J., and what brought you there, having been raised in Syracuse?

TT: Since 1989. I lived in New York City for 17 years and had had enough. I was like, ‘Get me out of here.’ So my wife and I moved out here. I love New York, but…

BM: Before Bela Fleck and Gordon Stone, you took the banjo and bluegrass where it hadn’t gone before by mixing in jazz, rock and chamber music. Having gravitated to the traditional sounds of Earl Scruggs and Bill Monroe, what made you want to, as the Indianapolis News says, ‘take the banjo where no banjo has gone before’?

TT: It was really a natural compulsion. In 1965, I entered a banjo contest and played a traditional tune ‘Nine Pound Hammer.’ I threw in these pseudo-Middle Eastern modes. Since one of the judges was (traditional banjoist) Ralph Stanley, I didn’t have a chance of winning anyway. Now I had no exposure to Middle Eastern music, except maybe on TV, but these notes came popping out. In Syracuse, my father played the piano and before he’d go to sleep, out would come the Fats Waller. I was taking classical piano and flute lessons. Then I got into folk music and the banjo. So there were a lot of influences in my ears already. I wasn’t growing up in Kentucky, so I didn’t have any restrictions.

BM: How much of an influence did the music that your father played for fun and the late ’60s rock on which you were raised influence your musical direction? And comment on why you think so highly of The Beatles’ ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’?

TT: My father was a physics professor at Syracuse University. Teaching has always been a part of my life individually and through workshops, instruction books and videos. For a long time, I didn’t think I followed in father’s footsteps, because I didn’t pursue an interest in science. But I enjoy teaching, so I have that aspect of my personality from him. If there’s such things as genes for that, I have them.

He also loved folk music: The Weavers and Pete Seeger. The first guitar I had was actually my Dad’s. I bloodied my fingers on it when I was 12 years old. I was into protest music, like Bob Dylan, Tom Paxton, Phil Ochs. Both my parents were very liberal. They’re liberalness got in there. ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ is a really deep song for me. I wouldn’t say that’s the greatest song ever written. I certainly wouldn’t get in an argument with Gershwin about it. But for me, it’s an important song, because it represented the radical step forward for pop music. It was the first tune recorded for the ‘Sgt. Pepper’ sessions, but it didn’t go on. It was a declaration line even though The Beatles had done some radical stuff on ‘Revolver’ right before it. But when I heard it on the radio, my jaw hung down.

BM: What qualifications did the musicians have to have join your new band?

TT: Even though none of them have an orientation to bluegrass, they had to relate to it, adapt to that feel on their instrument, which isn’t to say our guitar player is a bluegrass player, because he isn’t. But what he plays compliments a tune that has a bluegrass feel. There’s only one song on the new album, ‘Georgia Pig,’ that really has bluegrass feel, that’s fairly bluegrass. They all have a lot different influences. I love when the sax comes in and Michael plays like Coltrane or some R&B or Glenn does this screaming thing like Hendrix on the guitar. I get a real charge out of that.

BM: How has The Tony Trischka Band enabled you to break even more new ground?

TT: It’s given me a wider palette. Whatever tune I might write could work for the band. I don’t think there’s anything I’ve come up with lately that the band couldn’t do, because they’re so versatile whether it’s Latin, rock, jazz, whatever.

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