John Reischman & The Jaybirds – One for the team
A day after our interview in his sun-soaked backyard, John Reischman feels the need to follow up with a phone call. The ace mandolinist has been worrying about whether he gave enough credit to bassist Trisha Gagnon, guitarist Jim Nunally, banjo player Nick Hornbuckle and fiddler Greg Spatz. Those musicians are collectively known as the Jaybirds, and they’ve played with him on three albums (including The Road West, released in April on Vancouver indie label Corvus).
“I’ll take credit for choosing musicians that I like and enjoy playing with,” the self-effacing Reischman says. “But what I want to stress is that everyone contributes. The Jaybirds is five people, and we just wouldn’t have the same sound if one of us left. Something really special happens when we get together.”
That’s certainly borne out by The Road West, a relentlessly infectious, impeccably played outing inspired by the bluegrass giants of yesteryear. “When most people think of a traditional bluegrass band, they think of someone covering Bill Monroe or the Stanley Brothers,” Reischman figures. “We’re influenced by old-time music, but we we’re not interested in covering the standards.”
Reischman reveals himself a keen student of bluegrass history with two beautiful original instrumentals, going the hushed route on the slow-burn “Allens Creek” and revving things up on the rollicking “Crowberry”. Proving that the Jaybirds are indeed a team, his bandmates clock in with their own numbers. Nunally’s harmony-saturated “Travelin’ The Road West” is inspired partly by The Grapes Of Wrath and partly by his own family’s Dust Bowl experiences. Gagnon reminisces about blackberry pancakes and her grandmother’s wood stove in the sweet “Blackberry Bramble”.
Reischman, raised in Ukiah, California, has made his name as a mandolin player on the bluegrass circuit, but he started out playing guitar at age 12. “Robben Ford grew up in the same town as me,” he says. “My neighbor was in a band with him, and they’d rehearse on his back porch.”
At 17, he was ready for something different, so he borrowed a mandolin from a family friend. “I associated it with bluegrass that I’d seen on TV — Flatt & Scruggs on ‘The Beverly Hillbillies’,” Reischman says. “That was the music I gravitated to. The mandolin also gave me my own musical identity.”
Reischman got hooked, going on to join the Bay Area combo Good Ol’ Persons in 1978, and later seminal bluegrass act the Tony Rice Unit. Eventually he relocated to Vancouver, where he’s now one of the city’s most respected players.
Those who have followed his career know he’s hardly a one-trick pony; an ongoing project with Seattle guitarist John Miller yielded two stellar albums (The Singing Moon and Bumpy Road) that drew on everything from Brazilian choro to Emerald Isle folk to 18th-century classical. With the Jaybirds, though, Reischman keeps his bluegrass as pure as Appalachian spring water. “I don’t have a problem with musicians who mix genres, but it’s not something that I feel compelled to do with this band,” he explains.
What ultimately stands out on The Road West is the blue-ribbon quality of the musicianship — no wonder, considering that Reischman’s search for players didn’t stop at Vancouver’s city limits. The various Jaybirds reside in Seattle, Spokane, the Bay Area, and the B.C. farming community of Chilliwack. Keeping the team together might have its geographical challenges, but Reischman wouldn’t have things any other way.
“What everyone has in common in the Jaybirds is how supportive they are,” he says. “Every player does their best to make the person who’s soloing or singing at the time sound good. There’s not a lot of showboating going on — until, that is, it’s time to step up and showboat.”
— MIKE USINGER