By Bill McKay
(The following appeared in the September 1996 issue of Banjo Newsletter)
For most musicians, mastering a new lick or tune now and then is rewarding enough. And if any of us are lucky enough to grow beyond licks into a personal style that others applaud as unique, or help to form a band that develops its own influential sound, then we feel especially blessed. But Pete Wernick has “been there, done that,” and these days has higher goals. Being a creative master of the five-string in one of the freshest-sounding bands in bluegrass history was not enough. His main response to the “demise of the Rize,” rather than merely recapitulating his prior successes, has been to push bravely into new territory. Well, it would be new territory for most of us. For Pete, the musical dimension known as synthesis is actually familiar turf. He visited here with a flute player fifteen years ago on his first solo album. Later, he journeyed back with a phase shifter on some of his original tunes. He extended his musical explorations as two of the eight characters in a multiple personality stage show that never failed to please thousands of fans of either band, Hot Rize or Red Knuckles. And he continues to maintain a multi-dimensional musical career as (1) a featured sideman for various performers, most notably Jody Stecher, Kate Brislin, Jeff White and Chris Thiles, (2) as the world’s favorite banjo teacher, (3) as half of a fine traditional style duo with wife and partner Joan, (4) as a producer and song writer, (5) as president of IBMA, (6) as erstwhile promoter of the hottest young talent in bluegrass, and (7) even still as a member of rare Hot Rize reunions. But the eighth and clearest example of his creativity was sampled on his second solo project “On A Roll,” and comes to full expression on the recent Sugar Hill release “I Tell You What!” This collection of original tunes and arrangements is the work of Pete’s talented and daring band known as Flexigrass (formerly The Live Five). The music is a blend of the banjo, bass and three other instruments usually associated with jazz or Dixieland: drums, vibes and clarinet. In Pete’s mind, and the minds of their growing cadre of fans, this instrumental array is perceived as wonderfully compatible with the rhythmic and melodic qualities of bluegrass.
Creative though he is, Pete is also surprisingly conservative about promoting his original work. Ever the aesthetic diplomat, Pete is very sensitive to the acceptance of two groups of the toughest musical critics in the world — traditional bluegrass fans, and hard-core jazz aficionados. He is modestly hopeful that a good share of each will hear the natural fit of these instruments and playing styles with the essence of even the most traditional tunes. He would like to gain Flexigrass a regular spot on the stages of bluegrass and jazz festivals around the country. Once you hear the quality and spirit of the LF’s playing, you’ll agree that he surely should. Dr. Banjo is also an accomplished student of the music he loves best. He knows that his efforts were preceded by the musical insights and experiments of other forward-thinking players before him. In the following interview, done with Pete in June of this year, we started out by discussing these influences and the odyssey of the LF as they converged into a working unit.
BNL: Donald Nitchie told me a story about Earl Scruggs playing with saxophone player King Curtis, and I thought that might be a fitting place to start a history of your musical ideas for the Live Five.
PW: Well, my biggest influence as a banjo player is Earl Scruggs, for all the reasons that everyone gives taste, tone, timing, touch, tunes. I still worship his playing, and can totally recharge myself and re-energize my efforts to get the best sound out of the instrument by just listening to some of his stuff. Now Earl, in 1960, met King Curtis when they were both working on a TV program about American folk music. King Curtis was a saxophone player in a soul band. He and Earl started jamming, and Earl was amazed that he could make music with a horn player and have it sound so good. This experience left a big impression on him. He talks about it as a turning point which eventually led to the breakup of Flatt and Scruggs, because he realized that there was more to what the banjo could do than what he was playing in a bluegrass context.
BNL: That’s a pretty significant insight.
PW: Well, that’s the way he refers to it. It wasn’t that he suddenly hated F? or anything like that. It’s just that he realized there was more that he could be doing. One time he mentioned to me that he just loved Pete Fountain’s clarinet played and that he would love to make a record with Pete Fountain. I forget whether that was before or after I had actually started the LF, but I remember also listening to Pete Fountain and saying to myself, “This guy is playing bluegrass on a clarinet!” I also listened over the years to the vibes playing of Gary Burton and loved the fluidity of his playing. It so happens that one of Gary Burton’s earliest records, made in the 60’s when he was a teenager, has Sonny Osborne playing on the title cut called Tennessee Firebird. The tune started off almost bluegrassy, with Sonny playing a roll, and then it went very much in jazzy direction and the banjo wasn’t really heard from by the end. But that must have planted the seed in my head, “Yes, you could try these things.
I’ve always imagined things…there are other things I’ve heard…like, for instance, take the Staple Singers gospel group. Sometimes they get into a certain kind of rhythm and I think, “Oh, man, a banjo roll would sound great with this!, and I try playing along with their records. There’s a Stevie Wonder song that I remember trying to play along with. It’s just that the banjo roll to me is this really cool thing! I’ve played with Cajun bands and stuck in a banjo roll, and also in Dixieland bands you know, just in informal jamming situations. I always thought of it as a novelty, but you eventually have to face the important question, “Is this fun just because I have never heard it before, or is it fun because it’s good music and would stand the test of time?” The only way to find that out for sure is to try and play it for a while and see if you have avenues to go down or not. And if those musical avenues sound valid and not merely like a novelty, then you have something. For me, the phase shifter on the banjo passed the test. I also tried using the flute on some tunes on my “Dr. Banjo Steps Out” record. So when it came to putting the Live Five together, it basically started with me bumping into a drummer, Kris Ditson, who had played with Breakfast Special [with Tony Trischka, Andy Statman et al in the 70’s]. He had played really great bluegrass rhythms with brushes on a standard drum kit. I loved the way he reinforced the bluegrass rhythm and charged it up without interfering with it in any way. Other drummers I’ve heard have tended to step on the banjo roll and almost deaden it with too much bass drum and so on. I was fortunate enough to run into him in a local music store in the late 80’s and it turned out he had moved to the Boulder area to live. That’s what led to Flexigrass. The two of us started jamming and pretty soon I was saying, “Gee, do you know any clarinet players? Do you know a vibes player?” I was just in the mood to try some experiments.
One day we got five people on those instruments all together in the same room, and they were the same guys who became the Live Five. I showed them a couple of basic tunes and they played them real well. Then I worked with them in something of a bluegrass orientation in terms of the types of phrases they might play and the way we deal with the rhythm. Eventually it came time to give the style of music that was emerging from this experiment a name. I thought of all kinds of variations on the term Bluegrass. It is basically bluegrass played on some different instruments than you would find in the usual bluegrass band. And most of the tunes we are playing are about as bluegrassy as we are capable of. But it doesn’t sound just like bluegrass because of what the instruments are.
BNL: Let me ask you something about that. The tunes that were included on the “On A Roll” album certainly have the sound of inventiveness about them. But in this new project, I hear a higher level of consolidation. There’s more bold, interactive playing from the players, and it’s less apologetic, if you will. It seems like the five of you have started really having fun with this. Is that the case?
PW: Well yes, it is definitely fun. For one thing, the sessions that were done for the “On A Roll” album were recorded in October of 1992. At that point, the Live Five had only been playing together for a few months, and had performed in public maybe a grand total of once. By the time we recorded “I Tell You What,” it was almost four years later, and we had played and performed together a whole bunch even at some pretty big bluegrass festivals. We had gone through some of what all bands go through, that process of doing more of something if it works and less it if doesn’t. Also, pondering the idea a bit, David Grisman has been a big influence on me. I mean that in the sense of having an all instrumental band and in putting together musical elements that work well together but have not usually been associated with each other before.
BNL: As in the “Dawgwood” album?
PW: Yes, that, but also everything he has done right from his very first record. He was doing things that other people hadn’t thought of doing–using two mandolins as the heart and soul of a band, and so on. I’m just always impressed with his approach to playing and entertaining audiences. I mean, he gets called back for encores after playing a long all-instrumental set. How does he do it? I can see that he starts with really hot players, and the features one instrument or combination of instruments heavily on one tune and a different one on another tune.
BNL: He also plays into the natural tonal qualities of the instruments.
PW: Yes, I think it’s a given with David that whatever he plays, the instruments are going to have great tone and he is going to explore the full tonal range of the instrument and make it sound good. I think he picks players that feel and hear like he does in that regard. He’s also meticulously attentive to the technical details of sound reproduction and he chooses his equipment very carefully. That also really helps people get into his music.
BNL: It’s interesting that you pick David as a model, because he long ago advised mandolin players to regard the clarinet as a source of melodies and interesting musical patterns for the mandolin.
PW: Well, I see his point. Actually, I hear the clarinet as an alternative to the fiddle as it functions in Flexigrass. It’s mainly melodic, like the fiddle. You can only get one note at a time, because there are no double stops on the clarinet, but its tonal range is way above everyone else’s, and it cuts through the band sound. The role of the mandolin, at least the rhythmic aspect, in Flexigrass is taken by the drums. The active, interesting rhythm concepts that, say, Tim O’Brien did in Hot Rize or Andy Statman did on my “Dr. BanJo” album, I’m after Kris to do. For instance, sometimes he plays what is called the train rhythm, you know, bumpa chicka, bumpa chicka, instead of the basic bump chick, bump chick– and he does all sorts of interesting accenting, which really charges up the
music. I hardly understand drumming at all, but I’ve learned enough to describe to Kris what he just did that I liked or I didn’t like, so that I can get him to do more or less of it.
I will say it was scary at first having to interact with three other people who are great musicians on instruments that I was completely unfamiliar with in any technical sense: vibes, clarinet and drums. We used to laugh about my vocabulary and the ways that I would try to get them to play things that I heard. I was very fortunate in that they were very understanding about the things I was trying to get across to them, and they would try hard to do it because they respected that I had a vision that they could fit into. Luckily, the results were good enough quickly enough that they trusted that there was something worthwhile happening. Of course, I would really want to make sure it is known that it hasn’t been just me telling the guys what to do, but more of an interactive thing. I get a lot of ideas from the guys in the band.
BNL: I do hear them playing with a real respect for the fundamental forms you are starting from. It’s not like they’re grudgingly playing bluegrass tunes because you convinced them to.
PW: Oh no. They’re all into this concept wholeheartedly. They really like this kind of music we’re making. In fact, the clarinet player we have now, Bill, replaced our original clarinet player. When I called him up to offer him the job, I said we were trying a new concept. He responded that he had been playing Dixieland for so long that he was actively looking for something different to do, to which I responded, “That’s good, because this is really different.” I also told him I was glad he had been doing so much Dixieland, because I consciously wanted that sound as part of the mix in our band.
BNL: You mentioned earlier about instruments and musical languages with which you weren’t so technically familiar. Lct’s talk some about one you are intimately familiar with, the banjo, and how you go about playing it and arranging tunes from a Live Five perspective as different from a bluegrass band.
PW: It depends on the kind of tune that’s going on. Kris always listens pretty intently to what I’m doing on the banjo and lays down what he feels right with on drums. Then I might comment on it. Same with Rich on bass. I guess, really, we just basically start playing the tune. I hand everyone chord charts and if someone else is going to be a lead player and responsible for the lead line, I make them a recording of it.
BNL: I hear a lot more pitching lead lines back and forth on this album, and interactive playing rather than just taking turns doing solos.
PW: Well, that goes back to the David Grisman influence. At the beginning we started out learning tunes and just doing the turn-taking approach. But we were often finishing tunes doing something we call “Dixilating,” where we all just play together at full tilt at the end, like a Dixieland band when they hit the final chorus. Everybody’s just blowing and going nuts simultaneously. That’s a very trademark ending in Dixieland. But I’ve always loved it in bluegrass and acoustic string band music in general when people work out simultaneous leads, sometimes in unison and sometimes not in unison. Then they just let all that frenetic energy be the message. It’s like saying, “Well we’re all sort of together but we all have our individual voices too.” You get some really special things happening that way, and of course you also can get some chaos. But a little bit of chaos is even fun now and then.
Sometimes, to make arrangements more interesting, one guy might play a line and another guy answer. One of us had the idea for doing a song with just one instrument playing alone, and we did that in Dear Old Dixie–one guy plays his part alone and then the next guy plays his part the same way. By the time we all come in together, you experience this refreshing sound of all the instruments working together.
That’s part of the challenge of an all instrumental band. You don’t have lyrics to grab people’s attention. The material has to have enough creativity for the listener to latch onto, the playing has to be top quality, and the arrangements need to be interesting.
BNL: In that regard I notice you did a good job in writing these tunes. In each one, a la Dave Brubeck, no matter how complex they are, there’s a catchline, a repeated melodic phrase that everyone touches base with throughout the tune.
PW: Actually, that’s a Ia Earl Scruggs. In “Masters of the Five String,” I wrote a fairly comprehensive chapter on Earl’s style. One of the things I noticed along the way about every hit instrumental that he ever wrote was that there’s a little bit of a phrase that’s not played with a roll. Like in Flint Hill Special, the stuff with the tuners, or the little G7 lick in Shuckin’ The Corn. Ground Speed has a section like that on the D6 chord. So I’ve trained myself. Whenever I come across a nice, tidy little phrase like that, I try to write an instrumental around it. Writing tunes that are accessible is important and a big challenge to me. When I was starting out, there weren’t a lot of banjo tunes, or banjo players who were creating banjo tunes. When Tony Trischka and I started getting into that, anything we wrote was part of a small universe of banjo tunes. And then Tony himself became a universe of banjo tunes, and then Bela became a universe of banjo tunes. And now we have a fair number of banjo tune composers. Frankly, it scared me at first, because I thought that these guys were such great players, and writing such complex material, it was sort of pointless for me to write a tune. But then I realized that I could go back to the Scruggs model and do the instrument justice. I mean, the beauty of Foggy Mountain Breakdown is in its simplicity. The heart and soul of that tune is a couple of very simple licks. Guys like Tony and Bela can do amazing things, but I can come still come up with catchy licks that aren’t necessarily hard to play.
BNL: Closing thoughts?
PW: Just that there are so many really refreshing things about playing this music we’re into. I’ve been professionally for 25 years, playing banjo for 35 years, and in that span have heard an awful lot of the best Bluegrass music. I’ve block enough times so that to feel like I’m not rehashing things. And this is something I really feel charged up about. I see Flexigrass (formerly The Live Five) as a book in which we’ve only covered the first two chapters. We still have a lot of this story to play out. Who knows what could be in the chapters ahead?
NOTE: Tablatures for the songs “Sky Rider” and “Ruthie” both appeared with this article. You can see these tabs in the INSTRUCTIONAL section of this site.