The Flexigrass Experience – By Kathy Foster-Patton
Flexigrass is one of the longest running acoustic bands in Colorado, having been together longer than Pete Wernick’s “other” band—Hot Rize. In Flexigrass, Wernick, also known as Dr. Banjo, is joined by his wife Joan on vocals, Bill Pontarelli on clarinet, drummer Kris Ditson, bassist Roger Johns, and Greg Harris on vibraphones. Wernick took time out from a hectic fall schedule to talk with Pow’r Pickin’ about the evolution of Flexigrass, their upcoming gigs, and the songs that get him excited.
Tell us about the “Flexigrass Experience.”
Well, there’s six of us in the band, and by this time we know each other pretty well. The newest guy in the band is Greg, who’s only been in 3 years. Everybody else goes back to the 20th century. So, we have a lot of fun together, and I am very stoked about having such talented people in the band with me, a few of them are band leaders themselves, and there’s just a lot of talent. Greg, on vibes, is a great musician and really into this particular band. And then Bill, on clarinet, also is capable of just amazing pieces of inspiration and he has a tremendous ear and feeling for music. He’s always coming out with great ideas that inspire me. Our bass player is probably the most in-demand bass player in the whole state. He has a regular day job but he also works enough as a bass player to have a full-time job just doing that. His name is Roger Johns. I met him in the traditional jazz scene. He’s very much of an ear player. With our band he plays an electric bass. Roger is very inventive. If you ask him what he is doing, he really can’t tell you what it is, but he has great instinct and is a very solid player, too. Kris, our drummer, is the guy who actually helped me to start the band and inspired me to get a band going. His drumming is really tailored for bluegrass and that sounds almost like a contradiction in terms because Bill Monroe didn’t permit drums. But then on the other hand, there are other kinds of bluegrass than the Bill Monroe bluegrass. Flatt and Scruggs, and Jimmy Martin would use drums. If it’s done right, it has a way of enhancing music, just picking it up and lifting it up a little bit rather than clomping all over it.
One of the funnest parts of the Flexigrass experience is when we go into high gear and everybody is just zooming along in formation so to speak. Our five instruments are the same instruments of the Benny Goodman Quintet of the 1930’s, except he had an electric guitar and we have a 5 string banjo. Otherwise it’s the same instruments. It’s kind of neat. That band was a lot more like bluegrass than most people realize. I like the music, period.
Could you give us an overview of the evolution of Flexigrass?
The Live Five really just changed names into Flexigrass. It wasn’t even an evolution. I felt like the name wasn’t clear enough on what we were and I wanted it really understood that the music is based on bluegrass but it’s not bluegrass. I have too much respect for bluegrass to call a hybrid like this bluegrass and when people say “oh, you’re a bluegrass band,” I’ll say, “no it’s not bluegrass but you’ll see it’s based on bluegrass or bluegrass-oriented.” We play a lot of bluegrass material—“Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” “Soldier’s Joy,” “Blackberry Blossom.” The whole idea is to create a new kind of music that is obviously drawn from past influences but it’s still a new music, and we’re not just another band of a certain genre. We are a new genre of our own. We’re the only band like us that I’m aware of, although Ricky Skaggs and Earl Scruggs have both started using clarinet since I started using clarinet. I’m not saying they’re copying me but…
What all do you have going on this fall?
We’re starting our D Note series. We’re going to be playing the first and third Thursday of every month there in Arvada, except in October it’s going to be the first two Thursdays. This is our fourth year there, only we’ve been promoted from Tuesday to Thursday nights. We have guest artists play; we bring in new material. It’s really fun… People start meeting at the gig. I like when the audience gets to know each other, like at a grange hall. That’s kind of like it is there.
We are also making a new record, which is the first record since we got Greg on vibes, and also since we had a pretty big change of orientation when we added Joan as a vocalist. Joan was never really available as a mother of a growing son. When he moved out of the house, that made it a lot easier for Joan to participate. So we added her to the band and that was a good choice because until then we had lacked any real vocal emphasis and she is a really good and versatile vocalist both for bluegrass and …she actually will surprise people who haven’t heard her sing in what you might loosely call the “Peggy Lee style.” She sings with a different kind of flare. We do “Your Troubles and Dreams” from the 1930’s, and we also do “Leaving Town,” which is an angry bluegrass traveling song that I made up and she sings them both. And so that’s a different aspect to the band now and this new record will be the first real representation of the vocal thing. It’s a new era for the band.
What are the songs that the band does that get you excited?
The first one we recorded is a very peaceful kind of tune called “Waiting For Daylight,” I made it up in the middle of the night one night. I like the melody a lot. We also play “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.” It’s nice playing an Earl Scruggs tune. I have my own licks that I play on it, but it’s still pretty much in the Earl Scruggs style and we just really take that song at a high tempo and have the whole band shoot all cannons. It’s fun and Greg always gets applause on his solos on the vibraphone because they are amazingly athletic and driving. They really sound like they’re coming from a bluegrass frame of mind. And Bill on clarinet does fiddle licks on the clarinet: just exciting bluegrass sounds.
“Blackberry Blossom” is another one that’s fun to play. We have a couple of fiddle tunes where we do the arrangement, instead of everybody just taking turns playing it. We sort of apply different styles of playing the same tune. There’s also a pretty ballad that Ella Fitzgerald did on a record a long time ago, called, “It’s Too Soon To Know.” I just love playing that.
When I was in Hot Rize, there were various tunes that I’d make up, that wouldn’t really be Hot Rize-style tunes. It kind of holds you back a little bit, because you figure, so what if I made up this tune, when am I ever going to get to play it with somebody? In fact the latest tune that I’ve made up, called “Traveling Home,” I’ve performed on stage with Hot Rize and I’ve also recorded it with Flexigrass and they both play it really great.
We do a couple of Benny Goodman tunes, which I find very challenging. Challenging in a good way—I’d like to grow into the kind of player who would feel like Benny Goodman would actually hire me. In fact we’re recording “Airmail Special,” which he cowrote with Charlie Christian in the 1930’s.
Thanks, Pete, for telling us about what Flexigrass is about!