Oh wow—do we have an exciting Banjo Friday today!
We know that the banjo has a venerable history in the jazz tradition—after all, banjo & piano were stalwarts in the rhythm section of many early jazz combos. But those banjos were by & large either 6-string “guitar banjos” or 4-string tenors & plectrum models. The 5-string banjo wasn’t much of a factor in early jazz, for the simple reason that the 5th string, which acts as a drone in virtually all traditional playing styles, doesn’t fit with the chromaticism that jazz has tended to emphasize.
Of course, we also know that banjo playing styles have changed since the teens & 1920s. The development of Scruggs picking led to a different form of syncopation, & while most of the bluegrass repertoire relies on straightforward I-IV-V chord changes that allow for use of the drone string, Scruggs himself occasionally would play songs from “the Great American Songbook,” as well as ragtime progressions. In fact, “Salty Dog,” which is certainly part of the standard bluegrass repertoire, has a ragtime progression & probably originated in the African-American community. More recently, players like Bill Keith, Tony Trischka & Béla Fleck have all incorporated many jazz elements into playing styles that, at their foundation, are built on bluegrass.
Well, now try to summon up an audio “picture” of great jazz fusion guitarist John McLaughlin playing a 5-string banjo: does that kind of blow your mind? If so, get ready to listen to the sound of Ryan Cavanaugh. Cavanaugh is without question of the most singular talents in the banjo field today, & you can hear him in either bluegrass or jazz incarnations depending on whether you choose his 2007 bluegrass-flavored release Songs for the New Frontier or the rather amazing 2010 Ryan Cavanaugh & No Man’s Land; the latter not only features jazz sax great Bill Evans (& indeed, Cavanaugh has also toured with Evans & is featured on Evans’ latest release Dragonfly), but also features his regular backing band: Kevin Knapp on electric bass, Tyson Rogers on keyboards, Bryon Larrance on drums. The album is an EP, but a generous one—its five tracks clock in by my off-the-top-of-my-head” calculations at around 36 minutes. On four tracks, Cavanaugh plays a regular old acoustic 5-string, that at times is reminiscent of McLaughlin like lead lines & at other times might almost conjure sitar music—but all the while retaining at root its banjo nature. On the other track, “Johnny Mac,” Cavanaugh breaks out a Deering Crossfire, a fully electric banjo, & puts this instrument to wonderful use—the added sustain & bite are integral to the song’s sound. That’s the Crossfire in the first video below, tho “Grand Dragon” on the recording is played with an acoustic.
A review of Bill Evans’ Soulgrass show traces the history of bluegrass & jazz coming together, pointing out the importance of David Grisman’s “Dawg Music,” which among other things melded bluegrass & Gypsy jazz elements, thru the Newgrass revival & Fleck’s own playing, to these current incarnations involving Cavanaugh.
There are links to the Ryan Cavanaugh & No Man’s Land album on iTunes & AbstractLogix at the band page (link on the first mention of Cavanaugh’s name); the EP is also available at live shows & on Spotify.
The videos showcase two sides of Cavanaugh: both jazz & “traditional”—tho the duet in the second video between Cavanaugh & Rex McGee on “Angeline the Baker” is not like any version you’re likely to hear on someone’s front porch! The first is with his own group (with Kenny Anderson on sax), playing his tune “Grand Dragon” (as mentioned above.) This is someone who looks to make a big impact on banjo music, so enjoy!