Trischka's Treat

The banjo champion makes music that's finger-pickin' good.

Besides immortalizing the pithy catchphrase "squeal like a pig," the 1972 screen adaptation of writer James Dickey's Deliverance burned an indelible impression into our collective unconsciousness through its lightning-quick, banjo-fueled soundtrack. Go ahead -- try to forget that wonderfully creepy genetic wildcard who out-grins and out-picks actor Ronnie Cox note for blinding note. Try to forget that disturbing, backwoods hillbilly, bidding farewell to the doomed whitewater party, all alone on a bridge, swinging his battered five-string overhead like the devil's timeless pendulum.

Tony Trischka forgets -- for the most part. "I haven't seen that movie in a lot of years," the Syracuse native offers from his recently adopted New Jersey home. "A guy named Eric Weissburg, a studio musician from New York City, played that. Eric Weissburg looks nothing like that kid -- I guarantee it."

Quick to give credit where it's due, Trischka is a musician who for 37 years has been committed to elevating the stature of this oft-snubbed instrument, to pick away at the negative and stereotypical connotations so long associated with it. And there's enough of those to choke a horse. A stowaway on slave ships, the earliest prototype of the banjo -- "a drum on a stick," as Trischka calls it -- eventually fell into the dull-witted clutches of turn-of-the-century white actors, who would smear their faces with ham fat and burnt cork and take to the gaslit stage, eat watermelon and strum away. Even worse, they'd drawl cheerfully about the joys of servitude, gambling, fighting with razor blades and stealing chickens. Minstrel acts coincided with banjo-accompanied medicine shows, where snake-oil pushers (the same great minds who brought the world electric soap) degraded the instrument further. Appropriated by the bourgeois after World War I, the banjo became the favorite novelty parlor instrument of society types -- ladies, mostly, as the strings were believed to be less likely to injure a female's delicate fingers. Fast-forwarding to the present, most everyone's point of banjo reference is still, unfortunately, people like that jug-eared inbred from Deliverance.

A string thing: Banjoist Tony Trischka.
A string thing: Banjoist Tony Trischka.

Which makes Trischka's efforts all the more of an uphill battle. "My forever comment on the banjo," he says, "is that people should look at it as a widely varied instrument capable of playing many different kinds of music, not just bluegrass." His many years of playing -- redefining -- banjo music started at age fourteen. After listening to patterns picked out on the 1959 Kingston Trio tune "M.T.A." -- an urban folk song whose narrator, Charlie, must "ride forever 'neath the streets of Boston" because he doesn't have a ticket to get off the subway -- the young player was hooked. In fact, "M.T.A." seems to foreshadow the farsighted, labyrinthine approach to bluegrass music that Trischka would discover years later, a style that borders on the visionary. "I fell off the stage 'cause I was blinded by the spotlight," he recalls of his first professional gig, a duet with his music teacher. (Ironically, the pair was covering a song by José Feliciano.)

Born to a physics professor father and jeweler mother, the then-fledgling banjophile grew up to the sounds of Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, Pete Seeger and the Weavers, as well as the music of Debussy and show tunes from My Fair Lady and South Pacific. "I once wrote a letter to Pete Seeger," Trischka recalls. "'You're the best banjo player in the whole world,' I said. And he wrote back a postcard: 'Tony -- you know, music's not like a horse race. There's no such thing as best. But I'm glad you like my music.'"

Either way, a photo finish of history's breakneck banjo stallions would have to include Trischka in the thundering herd -- a man as dedicated to bluegrass music as he is to finding new, often jarring ways to subvert it. Imagine patching a banjo through a wah-wah pedal for an Earl Scruggs-meets-Jimi Hendrix hybrid. Or playing in a band called Psychograss, which included the most experimental of string players and whose very name embodied the very genre it helped create, as Trischka did in the early 1990s. Such behavior might get a fella tarred and feathered at a Kentucky corn-shuckin' jamboree -- criminy! -- but for Trischka, whose latest incarnation is an all-out electric '70s fusion-styled effort simply called the Tony Trischka Band, any and all musical abandon seems merely second nature.

The group's debut CD on Rounder, Bend, boasts what is possibly the whitest music ever conceived: progressive fusion with the high calling of Appalachia. And for such a pale-faced project -- pass the ham loaf, Earl -- Trischka looked well beyond your garden-variety bluegrass player. "In the past, I've strictly worked with friends or people I knew from the acoustic scene," he points out. "I decided that I wanted a completely fresh start and would audition players rather than ease into a band with people I already knew. This is the first time I've reached into other areas to find musicians." Enter Glenn Sherman -- "this screaming electric-guitar player," Trischka notes -- who combines an Ace Frehley/Lynyrd Skynyrd aesthetic with some Bongload Records session experience. Sherman, the youngest and only self-taught member of the group, also contributes vocals in addition to wielding a loud, Southern-rock-flavored ax. Abandoning the rural tones of a fiddle, Trischka chose tenor/soprano saxophonist Michael Amendola as his unlikely reed-picker; as well-versed in Broadway musicals as he is in lending incidental music to National Public Radio, Amendola gives the band its jazzier elements. Bassist Marco Accattatis, a native of Italy, intertwines his wide-ranging roots in funk, jazz and Latin music, providing sinewy low-end lines to an already thick and puzzling stew. Finally, ex-Feed the Meter drummer Grisha Alexiev rounds out the rhythm section, tightening the proceedings or blurring whatever needs to be blurred. A co-founder of New York City's Atomic Strings, Alexiev has performed with such varied artists as Archie Bell, John Cage and Anthony Braxton; he also fronts his own eleven-piece group, No Western Shirts.

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