Before the modern Americana movement began to employ it in innovative ways, the banjo was almost exclusively associated with bluegrass music. And without the ability to bend notes, its expressiveness was largely limited to intricate picking and blazing speed.
Tony Trischka is one of a handful of players who've dramatically redefined the banjo's capabilities. And on the aptly titled Great Big World, he shows just how versatile an instrument it can be - in the right hands.
Bluegrass is certainly an integral element in Trischka's music. But as he himself says of Great Big World, "It's all over the place, which is kind of where I live." So tunes range from standards like Woody Guthrie's "Do Re Mi" and The Louvin Brothers' "I Wonder Where You Are Tonight," to the genuinely fascinating "Single String Medley," an original composition in five parts, one for each string of the banjo (Trischka's is, of course, a five-stringed instrument; some banjos have only four strings). But there are also hints of ragtime, jazz, folk, and blues - Trischka has always been one to push boundaries, and the results are indeed worldly, music that's truly unconfined by arbitrary categorization.
As one of the world's foremost banjo players and educators, Trischka's list of musical accomplishments is absolutely staggering. Equally staggering is the guest list assembled for Great Big World - thirty-two musicians and singers appear in the credits, including such musical luminaries as Larry Campbell (Levon Helm Band), Oteil Burbidge (Allman Brothers), and Ramblin' Jack Elliot. Also on hand are actors John Goodman (a spoken vocal on "Wild Bill Hickok") and Steve Martin, who trades banjo licks with Trischka on "Promontory Point."
It's challenging stuff, to be sure, but Trischka never lets intellect triumph over emotion. Even his instrumental originals, as cerebral as they can be, possess an undeniable exuberance - the sheer joy of shared musical adventure and discovery is evident in every note.
Like the great big world we live in, Trischka's music continues to reveal more the more one listens. Fascinating, exhilarating, and quite simply likeable, this one's highly recommended!