One of the best aspects of being a music blogger is having the opportunity to easily interact with readers and other writers. Having access to the knowledge and expertise of an entire community is always appreciated, but I was especially grateful for this digitized world when a reader (Ron Myhr) recently turned me on to an artist that is quickly becoming a mild obsession. The artist is Tim Posgate, and I've listened to his most recent album, Banjo Hockey, at least once a day since getting a copy (and sometimes several times a day.) Banjo Hockey is a devoutly soulful amalgam of styles ranging from jazz to bluegrass to klezmer to folk, and it is quickly earning its way to the top of my daily playlist. (You can click this link to download two free songs from the album.)
Banjo Hockey was put out in 2009 by the Tim Posgate Hornband, which includes Posgate on banjo and guitar (mostly banjo) alongside differing combinations of trumpet, clarinet, tenor sax, tuba, baritone sax, and drums. The legendary Howard Johnson provides a deep low-end groove on tuba and baritone sax, bringing to the band his experience with jazz icons such as Charles Mingus, Gil Evans, Roland Kirk, Hank Mobley, and others. The other horn players, Quinsin Nachoff on clarinet and tenor sax and Lina Allemano on trumpet, also add myriad textures, riffs, and lead lines giving the album a wild diversity of influences within a cohesive structure. The album brings the best earthy elements from hard bop and 60s/70s "soul jazz," but pushes them up against disparate influences in string band, bluegrass, klezmer, and maybe even a sprinkling of Celtic. Moments of disciplined restraint give way beautifully to loose improvisations, infusing the album with a compelling tension between dogged tenacity and dog-eared audacity. Banjo Hockey never feels gratuitous or self-indulgent, even as it maintains a free-wheeling quality seemingly open to any musical ideas that might fight their way into the mix.
Photo by Anne Zbitnew
What I find most exciting about the album is the banjo playing of Posgate . For most of his career, the Canadian composer and bandleader has been a guitarist, touring internationally and garnering much critical praise. In recent years, however, he began to incorporate the five-string banjo into his playing, and, as the title suggests, his most recent album thrusts the instrument into the spotlight. The most interesting aspect to Posgate's banjo is that he obviously doesn't come to the instrument by way of a formal bluegrass background, making him unique among celebrated five-string players today (including some of the most experimental, genre-bending banjoists.)
While Posgate shows that he has the technique to fly beautifully through a tune with a cascade of rushing notes and roll patterns, he also demonstrates a willingness to let a phrase breath with plenty of space surrounding it. Most banjo players are constantly filling their musical space, emphasizing melody notes, but playing "fill" notes all around them so that their solos and themes become a "wall of sound" or a "waterfall" of notes. This can be sublime, of course, but I've often wondered why so many players are hesitant to use space more freely in their playing. It sometimes seems that all five-string banjo players are imbued with the spirit of Charlie Parker's breakneck be-bop while the cool restraint of Miles Davis is nowhere to be found (perhaps Earl Scruggs vs. Chet Atkins is a more appropriate comparison.) Posgate seems to understand the value of restraint. One gets the sense that his banjo phrasing is just as informed by the sparse guitar playing of John McLaughlin or Bill Frisell as it is by Earl Scruggs or Bela Fleck. Or maybe the biggest influence on Tim Posgate the banjo player is Tim Posgate the guitarist. Regardless of where it comes from, it is a refreshing approach to hear, and, when combined with his Hornband collaborators on Banjo Hockey, the result is at once intense and intricate, but also accessible and approachable. It is music that is constantly competing for attention between the head, the heart, and the feet while satisfying all equally by the time the album is done.
Currently, Posgate is working on a stringband project he calls Sorry Cousins. That band will incorporate mandolin, fiddle, guitar, and double bass.