Banjo players aren’t allotted much time on TV these days, especially during daytime hours on nationally-syndicated talk shows. Tony Trischka, a master of the instrument, was well-aware of this during a recent appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show to promote his latest album, Double Banjo Bluegrass Spectacular.
“It was an interesting opportunity that Steve Martin afforded me,” Trischka acknowledges. The actor is just one of the guest musicians on Trischka’s album.
When it’s suggested that Trishka has a good grip on the reality of being a banjo player, he laughed, “Oh, it was all about me. Ellen wanted me. I just did Steve a favor. Absolutely.”
Although Martin’s musicianship first became apparent to the public during the ’70s when he played banjo as part of his standup comedy act, most people underestimate his ability.
“They think, ‘OK. He’s a comedian and plays a little banjo,’ but he’s a really good banjo player,” Trischka says.
In some respects, Martin’s appearance with Trischka and his band on Ellen repaid a favor. In 1974, Martin opened two shows for Trischka’s band, Breakfast Special.
“He was extremely generous,” Trischka says of the Ellen appearance. “We did the tune he wrote on the album, ‘The Crow,’ which is a really nice song. When he sent me a tape of the tune so I could learn it, I transcribed and realized there’s there’s a lot of subtle stuff going on there.”
Other banjo players appearing on the album include Earl Scruggs, Alison Brown, Scott Vestal, Noam Pikelny, Tom Adams, Bill Emerson and one of Trischka’s former students, Béla Fleck.
“It’s been a great experience because I got to work with some of my favorite players,” Trishka says. “And I got an honor that will never be topped of getting to play with Earl Scruggs.”
Trishka remains in awe of the 83-year-old Scruggs’ playing.
“When we were recording the album, I was sitting knee to knee with him while we were rehearsing the tunes,” he says. “The thing that really hit me is how powerful his playing still is. And I saw him in New York four or five months ago. Just the very first hit of ‘Salty Dog,’ there was just that sound. The tone is the thing with Earl. It’s just so deep and so right and so perfect and so there, you can’t even really explain what it is about it, but it takes your head off.”
Trischka had already delved into twin banjo playing in the early ’70s when he worked with Pete Wernick in the band Country Cooking. Throughout his career, he’s expanded the banjo repertoire to include a wide variety of influences, including jazz and world music. When he decided to record a bluegrass album, Rounder Records co-founder Ken Irwin suggested making it a collaboration with other banjo players.
“I had done a couple of electric band albums and really hadn’t done a bluegrass-oriented album since the early ’80s,” he says.
Even though the new album emphasizes bluegrass, Trischka is still open to other musical possibilities. Earlier this year, he and mandolinist Sam Bush performed with saxophonist Bill Evans at the Blue Note, the revered jazz club in New York City.
“It was a combination that Bill Evans came up with,” he explains. “He has a thing called Soulgrass, a regular band that does this music with a banjo player and a fiddle. It’s all mixed together. It’s a jazz-bluegrass fusion. … Sam and I weren’t expected to be playing jazz, and we didn’t. There were some jazzy kind of flavors, but we did our language and they did their language. It fused together really nicely.”
Trischka points out a widely overlooked parallel between the birth of bluegrass and the advent of modern jazz.
“What’s interesting is that both be-bop and bluegrass, as it is today, started in 1945,” he says. “You can almost pin it down to that year. Two major musical forms took place, really, right around then — Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie doing their first recordings and Earl Scruggs joining Bill Monroe in late 1945.”
In both bluegrass and jazz, there’s also a divide between staunch traditionalists and those who attempt to stretch musical boundaries.
“I think there’s a tug and a pull that’s been going on for years in both formats,” he says. “When [jazz saxophonist] Ornette Coleman first came on the scene, he was being dissed by all the reviewers who were saying, ‘This guy can’t play. He doesn’t know what he’s doing.’ Of course, he did know what he was doing and could play. But it was too radical for them. The same for some of John Coltrane’s later stuff — and the same thing with the Osborne Brothers going electric in bluegrass … or having an electric bass. I certainly took my share of flak in the early ’70s for putting out my albums. People said, ‘You can’t have a saxophone in bluegrass.’”
Trishka doesn’t pass judgment when he observes that today’s bluegrass generally leans more toward a traditional sound than it did 30 years ago.
“I kind of have a limited perspective because I’m not on the bluegrass festival circuit that much,” he notes. “But from what I can tell, it has for many years been traditionally based, whereas in the early ’70s, New Grass Revival was first coming out, and you had II Generation, and I was with Breakfast Special.
“People were really taking a lot of chances with the form, but then it gets to be the question of whether it’s even bluegrass anymore. And who cares? It’s just music.”