Tony Trischka Band,
(Rounder, 1999)

When I first popped Bend in the CD player, I was taken aback just a little, because it wasn't quite what I had expected to hear. When I went back and listened more carefully, I realized my mistake, which was having set expectations in the first place about what Tony Trischka was going to do. Trischka, on second hearing, bent my expectations until I was almost completely satisfied with the music and the direction he had chosen this time around.

"Bend" refers to more than just notes -- Trischka bends genres as well, merging them together into a sound distinctly his own. You could call it fusion, in the best possible sense of the word, fusing different sounds and styles and rhythms to create something new, which is a long way from the "fusion" slop that rules too many jazz charts.

I shouldn't really have been surprised at the instrumentation of banjo, electric guitar and bass, sax and drums, since Trischka used the same grouping on his first album, Bluegrass Light, which I recently got as a reissue. Even though a quarter century has passed since that album, Trischka is still launching out into the musical beyond with damned uncommon playing, as we learn on the very first cut, "Sky Is Sleeping." His banjo swings and rocks, augmented by a great sax solo (the first of many) from Michael Amendola, while bassist Marco Accattatis provides a rock-steady bottom to the mix. The next two tracks deal with two divergent styles: "Bandore" has a Latin beat, while "Bend" starts out with a raga-like introduction, but in Trischka's hands, neither one stays where it started for long.

"Woodpecker" is one of two tracks that run over ten minutes, and is a fascinating bird to follow as it twists and turns from one mood to the next, with a wonderfully intense Trischka solo. Trischka and Glenn Sherman, the guitar monster of the album, share composer credits on "Moonlight Trail," which strays into bluegrass territory with a nice, loping tempo, but before very long it too "bends," just like most of its fellows, winding up somewhere far from where it began.

But the most bluegrassy track of all is "Georgia Pig," which is as down home and folksy as any Scruggsian would want, and it pretty much stays that way, making for a change of pace by going back to the roots. The corner turns drastically with "Steam/Foam of the Ancient Lake," an extended rock jam that burns for a full 12 1/2 minutes. If any of your jazz friends condemn all fusion as "CONfusion," (Lou Donaldson's term), sit them down and make them listen to this blend of intertwining lines, bizarre melodies and varying rhythms, and they'll see that there's an amazing amount of musical content here.

We get to catch our breath with the far shorter "Lynx," a blue and moody piece by drummer Grisha Alexiev, which offers a gorgeous guitar/flute dialogue. The wildlife theme continues with "Canary," in which the tight vocals recall Crosby, Stills and Nash at their mellowest. I leave it to you to decide whether that's a good thing or not. The few vocals on the album, apparently done by Glenn Sherman, aren't all that compelling, nor the lyrics that interesting. Though Sherman's guitar work is terrific, his voice isn't particularly strong, and the album would probably have been better off purely instrumental.

"First Steps" is a solid ending, a real rocker with a fast tempo that gives drummer Alexiev an extended and imaginative solo. Everybody, in fact, gets one last story to tell, and Sherman proves himself again to be one helluva guitarist.

If you're willing to let your mind and ears "bend" a little, and if you're a fan of fellow jazz/fusion/you-name-it banjo players Bela Fleck and Alison Brown, you're bound to enjoy Tony Trischka's energetic excursions with a solid yet adventurous band. And at a massive 73 minutes, you'll definitely find several tracks worth hitting the repeat button for.

[ by Chet Williamson ]

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