By Susan Wallner
State of the Arts
In the liner notes to his solo banjo album, “Territory,” Tony Trischka writes, “the very first thing I played on it was ‘Ode to Joy’ from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. So I guess I’ve never had preconceived notions about the banjo.” Trischka, who lives in Fair Lawn, NJ, was one of the first progressive banjo players, playing jazz, classical and rock on the traditional five stringed instrument. But what seemed odd when he started out 40 years ago is now the lifeblood of a thriving alternative banjo scene that has traveled far from the old hillbilly sound.
Tony Trischka is one of the master players featured in Béla Fleck’s Banjo Summit, on an east coast tour through January. They played a concert on October 29 at the Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank, but their next date was cancelled by superstorm Sandy. Happily, it’s now been rescheduled at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton on Saturday, January 19. The virtuoso player Béla Fleck leads the masters, who include Trischka (once Fleck’s teacher), Eric Weissberg (of ‘Dueling Banjos’ fame), Bill Keith (Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys), Richie Stearns (Donna and the Buffalo), and Noam Pikelny.
Pikelny is the youngest of the group. In his early 30s and living in Brooklyn, he’s one of a new breed of banjo players, melding old-style techniques to create new sounds. He’s part of the Punch Brothers, an alternative bluegrass trio, and he received the first Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Bluegrass and Banjo. Martin, an accomplished banjo player himself, calls Pikelny “a player of unlimited range and astonishing precision.”
Pikelny says he was hooked when he heard the first Béla Fleck and the Flecktones album – he was nine years old and living in Chicago. “I was hearing these warm, sometimes even melancholy sounds coming out of the banjo and I couldn’t believe my ears,” he says. “As a kid I identified more with those sounds than the bluegrass and the rural sounds.”
The Banjo Summit has the masters playing all out together, and each picker has his own set featuring solos and duets as well. They’re backed up by a mandolin, a guitar, a fiddle and a bass. For more about the tour, visit www.nybanjo.org.