For a musical image of Tony Trischka, imagine a banjo player who’s some glorious amalgam of Charlie Parker, Ravi Shankar, Eric Dolphy, John McLaughlin, the Allman Brothers and Bill Keith.
The innovative player had a major role in breaking the banjo’s so-called “acoustic barrier.” And finally, with his 12th album — Bend (Rounder 1999) — Trischka has put together a band that can deliver on his myriad whims. “I’ve been experimenting with banjo fusion since the early ’70s,” he says. “It’s just taken 25 years or so to get it on stage.
“I’d never gotten around to organizing a regular group to do primarily my original compositions,” he continues. “After a bit of internal deliberation, I felt it was time to finally stand or fall on the merits of my own music. I decided that I wanted a completely fresh start, and would audition players rather than ease into a band with people I already knew. … In the past, I’ve strictly worked with friends or people I knew from the acoustic scene. This is the first time I’ve reached into other areas to find musicians. These guys excite me and give me a brand-new slant on my tunes.”
Guitarist Glenn Sherman was one of the first to come aboard the Tony Trischka Band. “Someone recommended Glenn, and during an initial conversation, he mentioned Lynyrd Skynyrd as being a prime influence,” Trischka remembers. “I set aside my prejudices long enough to get together with him and, much to my delight, had my head blown away by his guitar playing.” Trischka was initially thinking of including a fiddle player in the group, but says he reconsidered. “I abandoned the rural tones and started searching for a jazzier feel that a sax player could provide.” Saxophonist Michael Amendola — initially uncomfortable with what he called “the Bill Monroe thing” — has emerged, in Trischka’s words, “the premier ‘thrash-grass’ tenor [player] of our time.”
On Bend, Trischka recreates the instrumentation of his 1973 Rounder Records debut, Bluegrass Light: banjo, sax, electric guitar, bass and drums. Heartlands (Rounder, 1975) is considered a signpost for the generation of “newgrass revivalists” — including Trischka’s former student, the acclaimed Bela Fleck. “You think about somebody like Miles Davis or John Coltrane — people who learned everything about jazz, then digested it and it came out a new way,” suggests Fleck: “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.”
On “Sky Is Sleeping” (from Bend), Sherman rips note for note with Amendola’s tenor, Trischka picking like mad behind them. When they take it to double-time near the song’s end, it’s part bluegrass, part Frank Zappa. The action gets a bit Coltrane-esque on the 11-minute-plus jam, “Woodpecker.” Bassist Marco Accattatis and drummer Grisha Alexiev pump some serious funk on “Steam/Foam of the Ancient Lake,” which includes a killer sax/drum breakdown. And, for a few minutes, the tune even morphs from a Brecker Brothers vibe into dance hall ska. Bend also boasts Latin music (“Lynx” and Amendola’s “Bandore”), classic rock with horns (“Feed The Horse”), an arresting country two-step (“Georgia Pig”), and a song that sounds eerily like a Steely Dan tune (“Canary”).
Mike Gordon of Phish told Rounder Records: “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. Bend combines some of that element — almost like the joyous darkness of klezmer — with a modern tightness and brightness. The result is energized and crisp; if many of the sounds I put into my stereo seem to remain dormant, sitting inside the speaker, this is a sound that actually makes it out into the middle of the room where I’m standing.”
Although he’s known for his “psychograss” leanings, Trischka was influenced greatly, early on, by Bill Keith, considered the inventor of melodic bluegrass banjo. “I learned all his solos. He was my hero,” admits Trischka. “When I finally got to meet him, I was intimidated … but he was very nice and sat with me for about an hour and showed me some things. He was very generous with what he did, and I think that influenced my attitude. Now, when people want to play my licks, I’ll show them [how].”
The banjoist still gets excited playing traditionals like “Old Dan Tucker” and “Arkansas Traveler,” as he told the New York Times: “I almost get into a trance-like state when I play this music. And when I’m doing a show and I hear the bones, tambourine and fiddle, I feel like I’m back in the mid-1800s.”
In 1993, Trischka put out World Turning (the title track is a bluegrass cover of the famous Fleetwood Mac song), which retraced the history of banjo. “One of the things I want to do is bring the history into [the music] and say ‘We’re all in this together,'” he told The Hartford Advocate: “The banjo has a very strong black influence which has been there throughout its history, but it became an anathema to blacks because it became associated with minstrel shows. Most people think of ‘Dueling Banjos’ when they think of the banjo, but it has a history that really parallels what America has gone through culturally and socially.”
But acclaimed banjoist Ron Cody may have pegged Trischka best when he noted: “Tony is a major innovator. He’s … [explored] everything from African and Irish music to rock ‘n’ roll. And he even recorded with the Violent Femmes — which is really out there.”