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Zup's On

Armando Zuppa serves up a steaming bowl of alphabet newgrass.

"I used to play heavy metal when I was a kid -- White Snake, Iron Maiden, Saxxon -- all the pyro bands like Mötley Crüe and Kiss," Zuppa confesses. "I was wearing tight pants and makeup. So I wanna buy the body of a Gibson Flying V and put a fifth-string banjo on it with a little resonator, just to put on the wall. It's a piece of art to me. But it has to be white, man. That's the guitar that I've always dreamt of. I still look on eBay like once a week to see if there's one."

Until that happens, Zuppa will make do with his acoustic Nechville and an electric Deering Crossfire. Though not as tricked out as the sought-after customized Gibson, they were perfectly suitable rigs for cutting his 2001 debut, Zupperman. Full of quicksilver picking and tuneful arrangements, the album features breezy reels and rousing originals, plus covers of Steve Winwood's "Can't Find My Way Home" and Django Reinhardt's "Swing 42." Packaged with a comic booklet featuring a muscle-bound, Zorro-like superhero who saves a child from two marauding thugs, the disc blends traditional bluegrass and exploratory jams for an energetic synthesis.

Zuppa takes a more adventurous sonic approach on his latest disc, Soup Kitchen. Recorded for Avant-Acoustic, a worldly and progressive branch of Morris Beegle's Hapi Skratch imprint, the sophomore effort pays tribute to departed mandolinist Marco "Ciccio" Rosini (who died of a heart attack in 2004), and the other members of New Country Kitchen. "They were the ones who inspired me the most to play bluegrass and to play the banjo," Zuppa allows. "So this is my homage to them." Along with rearrangements of Russell Barenberg's "Through the Gates" and Greg Allman's "Midnight Rider," Soup features a Bach arpeggio adapted for banjo, "Two Part Invention in C." On each track, Zuppa presents the five-string in a fresh context.

Armando Zuppa is a banjo player by day, Zupperhero 
by night.
Armando Zuppa is a banjo player by day, Zupperhero by night.

"My addition to newgrass is my interpretation of how the banjo could fit pretty much into everything," Zuppa says. "To all those people who think the banjo is a limited instrument, I say it's not. And here's the proof: There's a classical tune, there's a Latin tune, there's spoken word, there's Irish music, and there's rock that hints towards U2. Maybe it'll all come together at one point, as long as there's a good melody. I'm Italian; I can't listen to free jazz without getting bored out of my head."

Such an admission helps to explain why Zuppa graces the title track of Zebra Junction's freewheeling Waterborne. Or why, backed in a live setting by violinist Julia Hays, bassist Dave Solzberg and drummer Chris Meisner, the ace picker might consider dusting off the famous golden oldie that launched a thousand squealing pigs.

"A lot of banjo players won't touch a cliche like 'Dueling Banjos,' because they wanna get out of that Appalachian, inbred kind of thing," Zuppa points out. "But I started playing the banjo because I saw Deliverance and listened to the soundtrack. So I play 'Dueling Banjos' now and then just for fun. I heard Béla Fleck do it once with a computer, and it was out of this world -- call-and-respond with a MIDI part that he'd pre-written. But the whole idea was that they were communicating. It was amazing."

If bluegrass purists want to string Fleck up for messing with tradition, they've yet to cry foul over Zuppa's playful gyrations. But in case worldly newgrass doesn't take hold in every corner of the globe, the noble Roman can always fall back on his culinary chops.

"Music is like cooking," Zuppa concludes. "There's tradition, but there's tons of possibilities to experiment. If you use good ingredients, it's all gonna taste good. You don't wanna mix too many flavors, 'cause one flavor is gonna erase another, and the sauce is gonna be a big brown thing. You wanna do something tasteful, something that appeals to the listener's heart."

Buon appetito.

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