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Album Review: Great Big World by Tony Trischka

Monday, May 19, 2014 @12:00:00 AM

Of all the great banjo players past and present, only a handful could truly be considered revolutionaries. Scruggs, Reno, Keith, Thompson and Fleck come to mind, and depending upon how you want to parse things, you might come up with several more. But not many more.

Arguably, Tony Trischka belongs on the list – not so much for how he plays, but for what he plays. His style is rooted in Scruggs, and Keith is clearly his single biggest influence; both are easily heard in his work. But his voice is distinctly his own. Even if you don’t consider him a revolutionary, one shouldn’t underestimate his influence. His fingerprints are all over the way the banjo is played today.

In addition to being the last person who dared to teach Bela Fleck anything, Trischka was the avatar of incorporating Scruggs, melodic and jazz elements seamlessly, in a way that made the banjo sound fresh and new. Directly or indirectly, many of those who awakened to the banjo since the early 1980s have Trischka to thank.

Trischka is a true scholar of the instrument in all its forms. He can play resonator, openback, akonting and other variants of the instrument flawlessly and classically.  But as a northern lad who grew up in the ‘50s and ‘60s, he was as influenced as much by The Beatles, Frank Zappa and the New York jazz scene as he was by bluegrass.

Not that those ideas always been appreciated. “I played in a banjo competition at a festival in Roanoke in 1965, and Ralph Stanley was one of the judges,” he said in a recent interview. “I played Nine Pound Hammer and threw in some Middle Eastern modes. I was not a finalist.”

Although Trischka can play bluegrass with the very best of them, his recordings and live performances reveal him as a player who respects the genre immensely but isn’t bound by it. As a result, his albums over the years reflect a remarkably varied range of instrumentation and musical structure.

On the one hand, this marks him as a fearless innovator; on the other, it seems to have kept at least part of the bluegrass world from fully embracing him (or he it, for that matter). Mutual respect, certainly, but not embrace; a lot of his music is simply too arcane and complicated for the kick-one-four-five-break-chorus-turnaround-tag ethic.

For hardcore bluegrassers, Trischka’s Grammy-winning Double Banjo Bluegrass Spectacular album, released in 2007, is probably his most continuously accessible album. Great Big World, his newly-released work, is all over the map, and seemingly more about Trischka challenging himself and inviting us to go along for the ride. If your initial reaction is “what the hell is THIS?” you probably won’t be alone. Trischka at his most inventive can be something of an acquired taste. But give it a few more listens, because it’s terrific.

“This album sort of hearkens back to the first albums I did for Rounder,” Trischka said. “On those, I could try anything. The recent albums have all had a unifying theme, but on this one, Rounder said ‘do what you want.’”

So he did, and the result is music about as diverse as you could hope to find on a banjo album. That’s got pluses and minuses. Trischka is a banjo wonk, and a fair amount of album reflects the wonkiness. Example: a suite of five short pieces, each of which is played single string – one string per piece.

The idea came out of an exchange with fiddler Brittany Haas. Each piece is distinctly different (though a Celtic feel predominates), and Trischka has been performing this piece, or parts of it, in concerts and workshops for several years, usually solo. It benefits here from lovely arrangements (featuring Tristan and Tashina Claridge and guitarist Dave Surette), which make it far more accessible than it is when played solo. Even so, while each snippet is lovely, if you didn’t know the backstory (or appreciate the technical mastery), you probably wouldn’t get the joke.

Other experiments are much more accessible. Promontory Point is a duet between Trischka and Steve Martin. “The idea was that Steve would write a tune, and I’d write one, using the same chord progression,” he said. Martin plays elegant clawhammer and Trischka alternately plays the countermelody on a cello banjo until the last, when the two are played against each other – gorgeously.

Then there’s Joy, which sprung out of Trischka’s fondness for “sacred steel” music (Trischka at one time played a lot of pedal steel guitar). “I borrowed the groove from an album, and had my son Sean and [Allman Brothers Band bassist] Oteil Burbridge cop the feel. I got Larry Campbell to play steel, and Catherine Russell to layer the vocals.”

Trischka wrote the lyrics – he wrote most of the album’s lyrics – borrowing from Buddhist, Christian and Judaic scripture. The result sounds like a full-on gospel rave-up, with a slightly more ecumenical message. Plus banjo and pedal steel, of course.

There are really only two songs that bluegrassers are likely to glom onto. The opening track, “Say Goodbye (For KM) opens with a ferocious solo banjo break before slamming into a classic bluegrass juxtaposition of upbeat music offsetting terribly sad lyrics. Sung by Michael Daves (who doubletracked harmonies with Chris Eldridge), the song features Sean Trischka on mandolin and Eldridge on guitar. It’s the one song on the album that was done at Rounder’s request; the label wanted a driving bluegrass number to open the album.

There’s also a spectacularly crooked cover of “I Wonder Where You Are Tonight.” The rhythmic concept was cribbed from a 1940 recording of Bill Monroe at the Opry; Michael Daves supplies lead vocals here as well, proving himself one of the best bluegrass vocalists working today.

Roughly half of the pieces on Great Big World feature vocals – supplied by artists including Aiofe O’Donovan, Abigail Washburn, and Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, who sings one of the most oddly affecting ballads of Wild Bill Hickock ever written. The actor John Goodman inserts an amusing spoken-word part, the text of which was lifted directly from the Help Wanted ad that earned Hickock his first job in law enforcement.

But it’s the instrumentals that really show off Trischka’s skill, and two deserve special mention: the album’s title track, played double-banjo style with Noam Pikelny, and the inexplicably entitled The Danny Thomas, a fiercely challenging piece written nearly 15 years ago, when Trischka was still playing off and on with Psychograss.

“We rehearsed it, but Psychograss was only playing a handful of gigs each year,” Trischka said. “It seemed to make more sense to focus on other stuff, so we never performed it live. I did used to play it with my electric group, but I’d always heard it as an acoustic piece.”

If you’ve been following Trischka since the earliest part of his recording career, part of the fun of Great Big World is hearing him reunite with two of his earliest collaborators – Andy Statman on mandolin and Russ Barenberg on guitar. Statman plays on several songs – including a delightfully bonkers break on the title track. Barenberg guests on Wild Bill Hickock.

The album concludes with Swag Bag Rag, which is pretty much just Trischka jamming with himself on an original ragtime number that shows how deep Trischka’s study of music goes. It’s not just impressive banjo music; the melody, chord structure and rhythm all ring true to the late 1890s. It’s fun, and it demonstrates how when you listen to Trischka, you often get a lot more than you bargained for.

Whether the no-extra-charge musicology lessons are your cup of tea is up to you. One should never listen to Trischka expecting the experience to be as comfortable as your old bedroom slippers; he simply doesn’t work that way. Instead, his entire career has been about pushing himself forward; while doing so, he has done the same for countless others.

That fact alone would be reason enough to buy the album – out of sheer gratitude for what he’s done for banjo players everywhere. The good news is that Great Big World is a great big album – alternately thrilling, confounding, moving, warm and often downright hilarious. It may not be what you expected, but it sure is fun.



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