Saxophonist Bill Evans
may have headed the marquee, but the surprise of his Soulgrass Band's 2007 Ottawa Jazz Festival performance
was 27 year-old banjoist Ryan Cavanaugh. In the wake of Béla Fleck
, Cavanaugh has emerged as the inevitable next step, continuing to transition the oft-maligned banjo into a bona fide jazz instrument as flexible as its six-string cousin, the guitar. Cavanaugh combines bluegrass technique with a broader jazz vernacular—on occasion resembling a down south incarnation of John McLaughlin
. No surprise, then, that the legendary fusion guitarist has endorsed Cavanaugh on more than one occasion, as he sends the banjo into fusion and funk territory with reckless abandon and unerring instincts.
Also no surprise, then, that Ryan Cavanaugh & No Man's Land—not the banjoist's debut, but the first to fully realize his nexus of newgrass and new jazz with his kick-ass quartet—includes "Johnny Mac" which, of a kind with the fusion legend's recent 4th Dimension writing, finds Cavanaugh soloing with similarly frightening speed and raw, overdriven dexterity.
While still raising the bar for his instrument, Fleck's work with The Flecktones has, in many ways, settled into uncomfortable predictability and a style over substance approach, his groundbreaking group often resorting to virtuosity as an end, rather than a means. For Cavanaugh, groove is paramount, whether in the fiery energy of "Johnny Mac" or "Grand Dragon," the funkier, mid-tempo "The Ballad of Edgar Boone," or the breezy, simmering intensity of "Wayne's Tune." Nor has Cavanaugh lost sight of the fundamentals of melody, even when delivering them at light-speed. And despite no shortage of composition complexity in these original charts, Cavanaugh also appreciates the need to let his music breathe.
That's not to say he isn't relentless when then music demands, but Cavanaugh also knows a thing or three about focused development, his opening solo on "Grand Dragon" building from zero to a massive climax, combining single-note runs with some of the scariest finger picking this side of Earl Scruggs. There's also plenty of space for his band mates, including drummer Bryon Larrance, who solos with similar structural attention over an ostinato that builds towards a searing solo from Evans, who's not a member of the group, but nevertheless guests on all but four of these five Cavanaugh compositions.
Keyboardist Tyson Rogers brings plenty of vintage sounds to the date, his tremolo'd Wurlitzer a shimmering undercurrent to Cavanaugh's greater lyricism on "The Ballad of Edgar Boone." With his bluegrass roots largely subsumed in a contemporary vibe clearly informed by his Soulgrass boss' accessible energy, they do percolate to the surface on "Long in the Tooth," the closest in complexion to The Flecktones and featuring a similarly thematic solo from bassist Kevin Knapp, before Cavanaugh takes over with another show-stopper.
Unlike Fleck, Cavanaugh isn't starting out with major label support, forcing reliance on the internet and word of mouth to get the message out. Still, if there's any justice, Ryan Cavanaugh & No Man's Land will get out there, making clear that there's plenty of room in the jazz continuum for another stellar banjoist.