Tim Posgate Discusses Banjo Hockey and Sorry Cousins
One of the best aspects of being a music blogger is having the opportunity to easily interact with readers and other writers. Having access to the knowledge and expertise of an entire community is always appreciated, but I was especially grateful for this digitized world when a reader (Ron Myhr) recently turned me on to an artist that is quickly becoming a mild obsession. The artist is Tim Posgate, and I’ve listened to his most recent album, Banjo Hockey, at least once a day since getting a copy (and sometimes several times a day.) Banjo Hockey is a devoutly soulful amalgam of styles ranging from jazz to bluegrass to klezmer to folk, and it is quickly earning its way to the top of my daily playlist. (You can click this link to download two free songs from the album.)
Banjo Hockey was put out in 2009 by the Tim Posgate Hornband, which includes Posgate on banjo and guitar (mostly banjo) alongside differing combinations of trumpet, clarinet, tenor sax, tuba, baritone sax, and drums. The legendary Howard Johnson provides a deep low-end groove on tuba and baritone sax, bringing to the band his experience with jazz icons such as Charles Mingus, Gil Evans, Roland Kirk, Hank Mobley, and others. The other horn players, Quinsin Nachoff on clarinet and tenor sax and Lina Allemano on trumpet, also add myriad textures, riffs, and lead lines giving the album a wild diversity of influences within a cohesive structure. The album brings the best earthy elements from hard bop and 60s/70s “soul jazz,” but pushes them up against disparate influences in string band, bluegrass, klezmer, and maybe even a sprinkling of Celtic. Moments of disciplined restraint give way beautifully to loose improvisations, infusing the album with a compelling tension between dogged tenacity and dog-eared audacity. Banjo Hockey never feels gratuitous or self-indulgent, even as it maintains a free-wheeling quality seemingly open to any musical ideas that might fight their way into the mix.
What I find most exciting about the album is the banjo playing of Posgate . For most of his career, the Canadian composer and bandleader has been a guitarist, touring internationally and garnering much critical praise. In recent years, however, he began to incorporate the five-string banjo into his playing, and, as the title suggests, his most recent album thrusts the instrument into the spotlight. The most interesting aspect to Posgate’s banjo is that he obviously doesn’t come to the instrument by way of a formal bluegrass background, making him unique among celebrated five-string players today (including some of the most experimental, genre-bending banjoists.)
While Posgate shows that he has the technique to fly beautifully through a tune with a cascade of rushing notes and roll patterns, he also demonstrates a willingness to let a phrase breath with plenty of space surrounding it. Most banjo players are constantly filling their musical space, emphasizing melody notes, but playing “fill” notes all around them so that their solos and themes become a “wall of sound” or a “waterfall” of notes. This can be sublime, of course, but I’ve often wondered why so many players are hesitant to use space more freely in their playing. It sometimes seems that all five-string banjo players are imbued with the spirit of Charlie Parker’s breakneck be-bop while the cool restraint of Miles Davis is nowhere to be found (perhaps Earl Scruggs vs. Chet Atkins is a more appropriate comparison.) Posgate seems to understand the value of restraint. One gets the sense that his banjo phrasing is just as informed by the sparse guitar playing of John McLaughlin or Bill Frisell as it is by Earl Scruggs or Bela Fleck. Or maybe the biggest influence on Tim Posgate the banjo player is Tim Posgate the guitarist. Regardless of where it comes from, it is a refreshing approach to hear, and, when combined with his Hornband collaborators on Banjo Hockey, the result is at once intense and intricate, but also accessible and approachable. It is music that is constantly competing for attention between the head, the heart, and the feet while satisfying all equally by the time the album is done.
Currently, Posgate is working on a stringband project he calls Sorry Cousins. That band will incorporate mandolin, fiddle, guitar, and double bass. Posgate was kind enough to answer some questions about his Hornband, upcoming stringband, and other projects in the works. Below is the interview:
Can you talk a little bit about the jazz scene in Canada? How does it compare to the US or Europe?
Tim Posgate: Parts of the jazz scene are thriving in Canada. It seems like most provinces now have colleges and universities that offer music programs in the bigger cities. Toronto is certainly the centre of all that. For example there are many universities and colleges here training musicians. However, I wonder how all these young musicians will find a venue for their music. Toronto’s jazz festival is celebrating it’s 25th anniversary and Guelph, Halifax, Montreal and Vancouver are also vital and inspiring in their programming. Unfortunately the prairies seem to have a tougher time.
The strength of the free improvisation scene in Canada is one of the things that crosses over into the jazz world and keeps it somewhat vibrant. You get people with very different backgrounds playing together and this can only be good. I am not really in touch with the current American or European jazz scenes.
Where did the title Banjo Hockey come from on your most recent album? I’ve read that you’re a big hockey fan. Was the idea just to name the album for two of your favorite pursuits (using that template, my album would probably be Pizza Couch, unfortunately)?
TP: You are correct in your Pizza Couch template. You should use that! Also there is an old expression from the American south that has many variations. The tuba player in our band, the legendary Howard Johnson; told me his mother used to say “Horse Hockey!” when she thought something was a lie. I don’t think it was spelled quite like my kind of hockey but I loved that expression.
When did you begin to incorporate the 5-string banjo into your playing and how did you come to the instrument?
TP: In the early repertoire of the Hornband I was trying to use multiple stringed instruments including banjo, lap steel, acoustic and electric guitar during our concerts to increase the number of textures available to me as a composer and bandleader. Sometime shortly after that the banjo hit me hard and I was obsessed. So much so that it affected my wife and kids, as they were over-dosing on my banjo playing and listening.
My pal, bassist Rob Clutton has always listened to bluegrass so I was hearing it peripherally since I was a kid and Rob and I had a band for a minute with banjoist Jayme Stone in which I played electric guitar. Then, about five years ago I was watching the DVD of Bela Fleck and Edgar Myer and something went click. I literally rushed up to the local music store and bought my first pair of picks and I really haven’t stopped playing since. I already owned the banjo that my wife Julie gave me for my 30th birthday so I paid my dues on that banjo for a year or so before I got my current Gold Tone banjo.
I find it really interesting and exciting to hear someone playing jazz (or jazz-influenced music) on the banjo who presumably didn’t come out of a heavy bluegrass background. The element I notice first and foremost is your comfort level in leaving more space around notes and phrases in some songs, anyway. I find this approach really refreshing. I guess I hear a guitarist’s phrasing in much of your banjo playing. Can you describe your approach to the banjo and how the two instruments (guitar and banjo) have influenced one another in your playing?
TP: It is funny because I used to take a comment like “hearing a guitarists phrasing” as an insult. Now, I have come to realize that I play the banjo a little bit different than most banjoists and how could that be a bad thing?
When I watch and listen to the great banjo players in the history of bluegrass or the more current ones I am very inspired. The technique of people like Bela Fleck or Ryan Cavanaugh is something to work on for a lifetime. I feel fortunate that my musical experiences are so different than theirs that no matter how much I try to learn from them I will never sound like them.
Certainly my comping as a jazz guitarist has affected the way that I approach the banjo. Having spent years trying to play something half as beautiful as someone like Ed Bickert and then purposely or accidentally applying that to the banjo is pretty fun. Also, single string improvising on the banjo is a staple in my “banjo kitchen.” A couple decades of playing bebop lines with a flat pick on my Gibson ES-175 have provided me with that.
Overall, I think I approach both instruments the same way in that I try to do whatever is best for the music in the moment. People have often said my records don’t have enough guitar playing on them. I am not really trying to prove anything, just make good music.
Also, playing the banjo so much has given me a new love and perspective for the guitar. I think that I am more aware of the guitar’s sustain and I no longer take that for granted.
Has the banjo influenced your writing and arranging, or is the approach basically the same as you would use with the guitar? Also, do you typically write alone or do you often collaborate with your band when writing?
TP: I really like your questions! The banjo has certainly influenced my writing and arranging. Sometimes I have to be careful and do some serious editing. It is too easy to come up with a cute banjo lick and give it a song title. I write alone, and try to get to other instruments too. This helps with the editing that I was referring to. My bands are really helpful with the arrangements. After I bring them to them they will make suggestions, sometimes ones specific to their instruments and sometimes just good solid musical suggestions.
With my latest project [Sorry Cousins], I can play all the instruments that I am writing for so I try to work out the parts or even compose on all the instruments. However, I have yet to write a tune on the string bass. Ha!
Banjo Hockey showcases a pretty amazing diversity of influences and genres, including klezmer, folk, bluegrass, jazz, and more. The confluence of these styles feels very natural on the album. How organic was this co-mingling of styles? In other words, did you say to yourself, “I’m going to make an album with these ideas in mind” or was this just the music that came forth when you sat down to write and arrange?
TP: I listen to more music than almost anyone I know. If I am not practicing or composing I will have records or CDs playing and I may be listening and studying them or casually enjoying them but there is always music on in our house. The only time I am really concious of styles etc. is when I am producing the record. I want to make sure it all fits together well and is an enjoyable listen from beginning to end. So, I guess it is pretty organic.
Banjo Hockey came out in 2009. What are you focusing on currently? Is there a new album on the horizon?
TP: Yes, I am very excited about my new band that I am writing for. We are called Sorry Cousins. The lineup is Adrian Gross on mandolin, Jaron Freeman-Fox on fiddle, Darryl Poulsen on acoustic guitar and Michael Herring on string bass. I am playing five-string banjo and writing all the music at this point. I see it as an extension of the Hornband but with strings. I am also writing and singing a few songs with these guys. Hopefully recording the new record before the end of the year.
I am also working on playing the fiddle and writing music for a large ensemble.
Have you lobbied the National Hockey League for an endorsement deal yet? If nothing else, have you had the opportunity to play banjo at a Maple Leafs game?
TP: Ha! It is a funny question coming from you in Nashville because I visited your amazing musical city about a year ago. I went to a Predators game I have become a bit of a Preds fan and have tried to get in touch with them about playing the National anthem at a game but no luck so far.
Thanks to Tim for taking the time to answer some questions. Below is a video of Tim and his Sorry Cousins rehearsing and working out some of their new material. You can click here to go to Tim’s website and record label.
Dustin Ogdin is a freelance writer and journalist based in Nashville, TN. His work has been featured by MTV News, the Associated Press, and various other stops in the vast environs of the world wide web. His personal blog and home base is Ear•Tyme Music. Click below to read more and network with Dustin.