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Trischka doubles the pleasure with modern banjo greats

By Chris Cooper

It hardly needs to be said that the banjo has taken major leaps in the hands of certain talented players over the years. It’s job as the “rhythmic glue” in traditional bluegrass continues, but has also evolved and found a unique voice in the more complex harmonies of jazz, “newgrass,” and all points in between. And the award winning playing of Tony Trischka has been a major force in taking the instrument to these new places for some 40 years or so.

On Double Banjo Bluegrass Spectacular Trischka is joined by a host of bluegrass banjo royalty: Earl Scruggs, Bela Fleck and Alison Brown, to name a few. Toss in more instrumentalists with names like Chris Thile, Stuart Duncan and Tony Rice and you’ve got the makings of something downright scary. The concept of the album, a collection of banjo duets, is a bit of a rarity. Often, one banjo is enough — those things are pretty loud, you know. But all jokes aside, Trischka and company run the gamut of possibilities here, with many highlights to be found without looking to hard. The impressionistic “Armando’s Children” stands out in its adventurous, winding arrangement and sometimes ear-tweaking harmonies. It’s one of three tracks featuring fellow virtuoso (and former student) Fleck.

“Twilight Kingdom” opens gently and builds steam steadily over its nearly nine minute course, shifting in tempo and dynamics with effortless grace. Stellar playing is provided by guest soloists Jerry Douglas, guitarist David Grier (whose crisp picking and unexpected melodic oddities are consistently engaging,) fiddler Stuart Duncan and of course Trischka himself. His duet with Alison Brown on “Escher’s Waltz” is more understated but no less impressive, with Sam Bush sitting in on mandolin. “The Crow,” penned by fellow picker and, oh yeah — comedian — Steve Martin is a wonderfully melodic tune, as well as a real surprise.

Trischka goes toe to toe with Earl Scruggs on the album opener, “Farewell Blues,” with all the players tearing it up tastefully. His penchant for twisting things around appears on “Doggy Salt,” which also finds Nickelcreek’s Chris Thile tossing his two cents worth in, weaving through a knuckle busting melody and sparring with the fiddle. “Bon Aqua Blues” keeps its sense of humor right on the surface, with little grin-inducing glissandos pushing the main melody along. And it’s that sense that though these are serious musicians, they can still have fun with the music that drives much of Double Banjo Bluegrass Spectacular, making it all the more enjoyable a ride. Often, getting this much talent in one place can result in music that’s only fun for other players. But under Trischka’s guidance all you hear is the joy of great musicians making great music.

“The Ivory Toad of Catalan” is another standout duet with Fleck, almost classical in form and delivery. Juxtaposed against the track that follows, “Arcadia” or “Fox On The Run,” you’re reminded just how varied Double Banjo Bluegrass Spectacular really is, with the traditional rubbing elbows cozily with the distinctly non-traditional, and having a good time while doing so. But maybe this is more a testament to Trischka’s remarkable versatility as a musician and taste in choosing his company. Either way, those in need of a strong dose of some of the finest banjo picking on the planet need look no further — here’s your CD.

(Chris Cooper can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

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