Ryan Cavanaugh and the Time of the Banjo
The sweeping documentary Give Me The Banjo premieres this week (Fri. Nov. 4) on PBS. And the filmmakers must be wishing they could keep adding scenes right up to airtime, because the banjo just keeps making news. America’s quintessential instrument is on an amazing tear right now.
At least three massively popular bands – I’m thinking of the Avett Brothers, Old Crow Medicine Show and Mumford & Sons –prominently feature banjo. And scores of up-and-coming Americana bands (i.e. The New Familiars, The Westbound Rangers, Holy Ghost Tent Revival, The Defibulators, Elephant Revival, Spirit Family Reunion, Frontier Ruckus and The Vespers just to name a few) make banjo an important part of their sound. The banjer, as Earl Scruggs calls it, is as fashionable in the indie scene nowadays as beards.
Meanwhile, the amazing Steve Martin, besides narrating Give Me The Banjo, is showcasing his own banjo playing on the talk show circuit, while playing with and presenting one of the best young bluegrass bands – The Steep Canyon Rangers – to America. Besides that, he’s supporting the banjo arts directly with generous annual grants, which so far have gone to Punch Brother Noam Pikelny and Lonesome River Band vet Sammy Shelor. (If you haven’t seen Noam’s spoof EPK for his new album, do so now.) In related news, Bela Fleck, arguably the best known banjo player after Earl Scruggs himself, recently premiered his concerto for banjo and orchestra, a three-movement mega-work he expects to perform with symphonies around the country in 2012. And with a little luck, the Earl Scruggs Center – a museum and regional showplace for banjo-related music in Shelby, NC that we have been privileged to work with – will raise its last few dollars and open in the coming year.
Amid all this hot banjo action, I enjoyed lunch recently with banjo magicianRyan Cavanaugh and his bandmate, bass player Kevin Knapp. We bonded over Thai aromas and our shared love of modern jazz and bluegrass. For some time, I’ve been wanting to pick Ryan’s brain and express my admiration for his bold embrace of the banjo as a truly contemporary instrument, capable of almost anything. He’s not the first to play jazz banjo by a long shot (it was a big deal 90 years ago, don’t you know) but he’s the most exciting and ambitious of the post-Fleck pickers out there today. Bela’s Flecktones, formed in 1988 made a seminal breakthrough for banjo in the world of jazz/rock/world/fusion. Ryan’s band No Man’s Land, and the music he plays on tour with saxophonist Bill Evans is even purer jazz, if that’s okay to say, literally one degree of separation from Miles Davis. It is in fact the highest level jazz banjo that I’m aware of, and Cavanaugh is only about 31 years old.
This is a great account of Ryan’s early years, but here’s the story in brief: He moved from New Jersey to Montana as a kid and picked up banjo from his father who turned him on to the Will The Circle Be Unbroken album (it strikes again!). On to North Carolina where he went deeper into traditional music and started winning all the important festival banjo contests. And to New Jersey where he learned about jazz from a keyboard player. He did not study Bela Fleck early on and try to copy. Instead he added Bela judiciously to a listening diet of Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and his hero guitarist John McLaughlin. The linked article also explains how he developed his own way of playing single string lines at ferocious speed with three fingers, something that surprised Bela when they first played together.
It is with McLaughlin, the dazzling, hyper-technical yet hyper-musical British jazz/fusion guitarist that Ryan’s story gets really interesting. After a few years leading his own group in Pennsylvania, a restless Cavanaugh wrote to McLaughlin via his website. Out of the blue, he told him of his aspirations on the jazz banjo and how he thought he fit in with McLaughlin’s style and high-level approach, and then he followed up with some MP3s of his improvising. And McLaughlin (who should be a Knight some day if he’s not already) – he of the In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew sessions with Miles Davis and the simply unparalleled Mahavishnu Orchestra – GOT BACK TO HIM. They got together and played. They’ve since performed together (here they are jamming informally backstage at a gig, albeit with Ryan on bass). McLaughlin recommended Ryan to his fellow Miles Davis band alum Bill Evans, helping Ryan get his first big international jazz gig. The details of this hook-up are well-told HERE.
A few years ago, I wrote about the Bill Evans Soulgrass project for the Wall Street Journal, noting at the time that while bluegrass and modern jazz share huge parallels in their history and art, they too rarely have been blended. While Bela played on the original Soulgrass album, Ryan has been the banjo player in Evans’s road band ever since. At this writing they’re out on a month-long tour in Europe, where people actually love this stuff as much as Americans should.
And then there’s Ryan’s outstanding album, released early this year, featuring No Man’s Land, which includes Kevin Knapp on electric bass, Tyson Rogers on all manner of keys, Bryon Larrance on drums and Bill Evans on sax. This is a superb disc and one that is almost shocking for its Nashville origins. Only Bela’s frequent sax player Jeff Coffin mines this kind of deeply chromatic, sometimes noisy and fervent style of jazz. At least to my awareness. The opening tune “Grand Dragon” states a magisterial fanfare on sax before drifting into a pretty space that lets Ryan course all over the neck and show how compact and thought-out his phrasing can be. My favorite, the most tuneful I guess, is “Long In The Tooth,” which has more bluegrass-derived banjo rolls and gorgeous, unpredictable changes. This one really could be a Flecktones tune. “The Ballad of Edgar Boone” is indeed a ballad that sways nicely. “Johnny Mac,” his homage to Mr. McLaughlin is just bad-ass, with a fantastic jagged theme and ice-cold, super-fast improvising. And the CD ends with “Wayne’s Tune,” I gather a nod to Wayne Shorter, which is lyrical and dreamy. Kudos to Rob Stokes, whom I’ve come to know as Sam Bush’s sound guy, for his crisp, present engineering and mixing. I very much hoped to love this album after seeing No Man’s Land perform at Music City Roots and the 5 Spot, and I’m happy to report that I do.
The irony is that back home in Music Freaking City, Ryan Cavanaugh is needy for gigs. As with so much that bedevils good music in our great land, a lot here has to do with expectations, borders and boxes. The bluegrass community may have heard of Ryan but may think he’s gone off to jazz-land and doesn’t like to play trad music. Not true. At lunch Ryan told me how much he loves bluegrass and how fastidiously he’s studied Earl Scruggs. And how about all those country sessions? The banjo came raging back to country radio with the Dixie Chicks before those evil-doers fell victim to right wing political correctness. And it seems to have stayed, whether actual banjo or banjitar, guit-jo or other misbegotten six-string guitar/banjo demon spawn (Oh relax, I’m kidding). I don’t know who’s getting that work, but I can assure producers out there that in Cavanaugh you’d find somebody who’s wildly creative and assured. Though he may be inclined to be blunt if confronted with truly bad ideas.
So let’s just be clear. The most versatile banjo player in the world who’s name isn’t Fleck is young and hungry in Nashville. He can play anything, and he’s proven he’s crafty enough to impress John-Oh-My-God-McLaughlin. If you’re a promoter bringing any decent jam band to town, Ryan Cavanaugh and No Man’s Land is your gimme opening act. A double bill with Ryan and The Bad Plus or Medeski, Martin & Wood would be a splendid idea. Call me and I’ll give you his phone number.