The Graham Weekly Album Review #1155

CD graphic Tony Trischka Band: Bend -- by George Graham

(Rounder 0454 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 6/16/99)

For a long time, the banjo was not considered a mainstream instrument. It was confined to rustic folk music, minstrel shows and old-time Dixieland jazz. A few decades ago, Earl Scruggs pioneered the five-string banjo, brought to the instrument some virtuosic technique, and made the banjo an indispensable part of bluegrass. But there were those who strove to bring the banjo to a wider spectrum. Until recently, those banjo eclecticists labored in relative obscurity, but over the past few years, Béla Fleck, though his Flecktones band, has boldly gone where no banjo has gone before, and in the process, achieved surprising popularity, considering how unconventional his music is.

More than 15 years before Béla Fleck launched the Flecktones, another New Yorker was taking his banjo where it tended to raise eyebrows, both among tradition-bound bluegrass fans, and among those practicing the styles into which he intruded his instrument. Over a lengthy recording career starting in 1973, Tony Trischka has done everything from strict bluegrass, to a great acoustic song-oriented band called Skyline, to a world music CD with members of R.E.M. Béla Fleck was one of his students, and Fleck still considers Trischka a mentor. The two banjo players have often performed together and recorded a couple of joint albums over the years.

Tony Trischka's latest recording is called Bend and it's with a new band he put together specifically to tour doing original music. In some ways it resembles the Flecktones' lineup, though the instrumentation, banjo, electric guitar, bass, drums and sax, is the same as on Trischka's first album 26 years ago. And like the Flecktones, The Tony Trischka Band serves up a what could properly be called fusion music, with the sax adding the jazzy sound, and the electric guitar giving it the rock edge. There are also a couple of vocal tracks as well.

Trischka decided that he would launch this band starting from scratch, auditioning new players rather than working with anyone with whom he had previously collaborated. The result is an interesting bunch. Guitarist and vocalist Glenn Sherman cites as one his big influences Lynyrd Skynyrd, and the Southern Rock aspect is never far from the surface of his playing. He is decidedly a rock player rather than a jazz or bluegrass picker. Of saxophonist Michael Amendola, Tony Trischka wrote in the CD's booklet that at his first audition, Amendola did not seem very comfortable with the bluegrass styles, but he came back later after, as jazz musicians say, some woodshedding -- that is a lot of practicing -- and he fit right in. The rhythm section includes bassist Marco Accattatis, who plays electric bass exclusively, and drummer Grisha Alexiev, who plays conventional drums rather than the electronic drums of the Flecktones' Roy "Future Man" Wooten.

Together, on this generously long CD, the quintet brings in everything from Mahavishnu-styled fusion, to Southern rock, to electric bluegrass hoedowns, with occasional hints of Eastern influence. The musicianship is first-rate, and the group is obviously enjoying itself, something which comes across to the listener.

Comparisons to the Flecktones are inevitable, given the similar musical philosophy and instrumentation. While the electric guitar in Trischka's group adds a element not present in the Flecktones, one of the great strengths of the Flecktones has been Béla Fleck's compositions. In addition to being a remarkable banjo player, Fleck is a great composer, regardless of instrument. Trischka and his group members share composing duties, but the tunes on Bend are not quite at the level of that of Trischka's former student. Of course, there are not many groups who can rise to the Flecktones' level. And this CD sounds as if Trischka and band are still finding themselves musically, experimenting with different influences, some of which work better than others, and sometimes moving from one sound to another in a manner that could be smoother.

This CD was apparently meant to capture the band as they would perform live, and thus they get into extended instrumental improvisations, which on a studio album sometimes go on a bit too long to the point that interest can flag. But overall, this is worthy recording by some excellent musicians.

Bend leads off with a Trischka composition called Sky Is Sleeping, which is typical of the sound of the band. The electric fusion instrumentation surrounds Trischka's traditional-sounding banjo. <<>> Everybody gets a chance a solo, starting with Sherman and his Southern Rock style guitar. <<>> Shortly before the end, the band breaks into a kind of high-powered hoedown. <<>>

Saxophonist Amendola wrote the following track, Bandore, which has latin beat, giving the band a chance show off more of its eclecticism. <<>>

The title track, Bend by Trischka, jumps back and forth between hints of Eastern tonalities, and another electric bluegrass breakdown. It proves to be one of the CD's stronger pieces. <<>>

Glenn Sherman wrote the song Feed the Horse, which he sings, and which also shows his Southern Rock roots. It's also one of the better pieces of writing on the album, mainly because it sticks with one genre and doesn't jump around a lot. <<>>

This CD has two especially long tracks, each over 11 minutes in length, and though they have their moments, they might well have been better with some editing. The first of the two, Woodpecker, by Trischka, sounds like several separate compositions woven together. It gives the members extended solo opportunities, the best of which is by guitarist Sherman, who brings a lot of interesting ideas into his solo. <<>>

The other extended track was co-written by Trischka and drummer Alexiev, and it consists of two separate titles, Steam and Foam of the Ancient Lake. The former starts out sounding vaguely like the Dixie Dregs, <<>> while the latter provides more extended solo opportunities, which sometimes border on noodling. <<>>

When Trischka gets back to bluegrass, the result is another of the album's highlights. Georgia Pig adds a jazzy flute and drums to the bluegrass for an appealing sound. <<>>

One of the most exotic and interesting pieces is also the album's shortest, Lynx written by drummer Alexiev. Michael Amendola plays a pennywhistle, while it sounds as if Trischka plays a gut-string banjo. <<>>

The album ends with its highest-energy track, First Steps, which sounds like a kind of virtuosic rock hoedown on caffeine. It gets pretty frenetic. <<>>

After being one of the most consistently innovative banjo players on the scene for over a quarter century, Tony Trischka has launched a new band to continue in the electric trails that he himself blazed and which have been popularized by his protegé and former student Béla Fleck and his Flecktones band. The Tony Trischka Band's new album Bend has a somewhat similar sound, and is also wide-ranging in its influences. While Glenn Sherman's Southern Rock style guitar adds much to this group that is missing from the Flecktones lineup, unfortunately, the writing as not as good. Although it's nice to have 73 minutes of music on a CD, this group could probably used the services of a good producer to tell them to edit down some of their material, which would have made the highlights a greater portion of the recording. But the Flecktones are a nearly impossibly high standard for comparison. From a strictly musical standpoint, Bend is a fine album, with first-rate musicianship and a great sense of eclecticism and the willingness to experiment.

In terms of sound quality, we'll give this CD an solid grade "A." While the sound does not immediately jump out and grab you, and Sherman's guitar occasionally sounds a bit thin, everything is tastefully recorded without needless studio effects, and the good dynamic range is definitely deserving of praise in this age of heavily compressed CDs.

The new release Bend by banjo innovator Tony Trischka and his band is definitely a worthwhile addition to the eclectic banjo collection. I suspect that if this band stays together for a while, further developing their sound and building on their musical strengths, they could be really exceptional.

This is George Graham.

(c) Copyright 1999 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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