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Local boy, banjo player Ryan Cavanaugh talks touring with Bill Evans' Soulgrass

Pick that jazz


Ryan Cavanaugh (left) with Bill Evans
  • Ryan Cavanaugh (left) with Bill Evans

Ryan Cavanaugh plays banjo as part of Bill Evans' Soulgrass touring band. Bringing together jazz and bluegrass, and recommended to Evans by both John McLaughlin and Béla Fleck, Cavanaugh funnels strong, fast and delirious picking into complex solos. He plays a homecoming show of sorts on Saturday, having recently moved from Carrboro to Nashville, Tenn. Cavanaugh took some time off from a bluegrass rehearsal in Nashville to talk about music.

INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: When did you first pick up the banjo?

RYAN CAVANAUGH: I picked up the banjo when I was 10 years old after hearing my father's bluegrass LP collection.

How did you start playing with Bill Evans?

When I started playing with Bill Evans, I was living in Chapel Hill at the time, and I had just disbanded Spacestation Integration, which is a band that I brought to North Carolina from Pennsylvania in 2001. I grew up my whole life playing bluegrass, but when I was in high school, I moved to Pennsylvania, which was quite a melting pot for music, but there was no bluegrass there. So, my high school piano teacher taught me to read music and introduced me to jazz because he knew who Béla Fleck was but he didn't know how to relate his jazz chops to Earl Scruggs. So, I formed an electric band and brought them to North Carolina. And I'd just gotten done touring with them, and I didn't really know what else to do. I wanted to get back to the acoustic banjo. So I won a few banjo contests: I won Merlefest, and RockyGrass in Colorado. I won a couple contests in Virginia, and I won RenoFest in South Carolina.

I didn't know what to do with my career. I'd been practicing jazz for the past five months, kind of dreaming about the next project I wanted to do that would be different than Béla Fleck but still adhere to my love of jazz. I was listening to John McLaughlin, and he was one of my heroes. I related all of those fast notes to the banjo. So, I sent him an e-mail telling him, "I learned a lot of your stuff, only I learned it on the banjo." He e-mailed me back and said, "Well send me some MP3s. I'm definitely interested."

I got an e-mail back a couple weeks later from Bill Evans, the famous sax player, and he said he just did a record with Béla Fleck and Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas and a bunch of these Nashville cats, and he wanted me to play in the touring band. So, three months later, I find myself on stage at Jazz at Monte Carlo with Bill Evans and John McLaughlin going, "How the hell did I get here?"

Since then, I've been on four or five European tours, each like a month long, one in the fall and one in the spring, and gotten to meet musicians like Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter. And I'm a banjo player, so it's a little strange. I've always been a jazz fan since I can remember. I grew up playing bluegrass, and I love that, but my alter-ego, my musical alter-ego is jazz. I'm an amateur historian and just a lover of the music, so I've gotten to meet all these heroes. We get to play festivals with these people in Europe, big jazz festivals.

What's it like playing with all of these living legends? Is it intimidating at all?

Well, yeah. Yeah, it's intimidating. I'm the youngest guy. I'm 28, and the rest of the band is 40 on up, and they've all played with Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock. Bill has played with Herbie Hancock and John McLaughlin and then he went to work with Bruce Hornsby, Andy Summers, Mick Jagger, Willie Nelson; he's been on world tours with these people.

And I could care less about that as opposed to the fact that he's played with all of my heroes like Miles Davis—he lived with Miles Davis for a long time—and I get to hear these stories about my heroes. And that intimidated me for a long time, and it took a little while for me to get over that. And once I calmed down, I realized, "Wow, I'm in jazz school. I'm in school for jazz being with these guys."

I was sitting at a breakfast table with John McLaughlin and Bill Evans. I was like, "You guys, will you write me a letter of recommendation so I can get a scholarship to Berklee?" I knew I could get a free scholarship to Berklee, like all bills paid, if those guys recommended me. And they looked at me, and they're like, "Are you crazy? Everybody at Berklee wants the gig you've got. You're in school now, buddy. You better just go home and study in between tours."

And that's what I do. I get paid to rub elbows with these guys, go out and play this kick-ass ridiculous jazz music, and then I come home and I hit the books. So, it's pretty cool. It's scary, because I'm trying to catch up to them, and they have all these years of experience, but it's also a blast, man. It's like strapping yourself into this rocket with the best musicians in the world and trying to hang on.

When you're playing, do you ever feel like you need to prove yourself to the band, the crowd or even yourself?

I definitely feel pressure from the band to make them happy and let them know that in between every tour I've been practicing. I want them to smile when they hear me solo. And a nice nod of approval is always appreciated.

The crowd, I've learned to play off the crowd's energy, but I want to play music that sounds good to my ears and makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck. A lot of it is composed, but when we solo, we improvise. We might be improvising over hard changes or just one tonal center, but when I solo, I want it all to be—I strive for perfection, I guess you could say.

Do you see any similarities between jazz and bluegrass?

Yes, the improvisational one. You play a melody with the ensemble—you play the melody to the song—and then over the chord changes ... the framework of the song ... you get to improvise. And that's the same thing with those genres of music. That's what they have in common. And it's kind of like you're improvising, and you're going balls out to strive to come up with fresh ideas and ad lib on a musical instrument and make a statement.

How has playing in both styles—jazz and bluegrass—influenced your own style?

I try to appeal to each side of my musical spectrum. I try to get out here—I'm living in Nashville now—and I try to keep up with the bluegrass. Even if it's just going out to listen or jam with a few friends. But when I'm at home, I'm listening, studying, anything from Charlie Parker to Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Miles. I listen to a lot of modern jazz.

You're playing bluegrass tonight. How does the transition from playing Soulgrass to playing bluegrass again work?

Soulgrass, and all these jazz studies, have definitely infiltrated my style to where when I play bluegrass, people look at me like I'm from Mars. So, when I have a bluegrass gig, I have to break out the old records and strive to sound traditional again. It's kind of hard. Sometimes I feel torn. But all in all, I just want to make myself happy. And to make myself happy, I'm happy playing jazz. I really am. And the great part about it is Soulgrass is a mix. When I play chords, and I'm playing funky stuff over a groove with Bill Evans, I can play chords like Herbie Hancock, and then during other parts I get to roll like the banjo does on "Foggy Mountain Breakdown." So, it's pretty cool.

Coming back to play in the area, what are you looking forward to?

I moved to Nashville six months ago, and I'd like to see some old friends—some bartenders and stuff—at the Speakeasy in Carrboro. I like the Carrboro side of town. I definitely got around that side of town. I strived when I was there to be a gigging and teaching musician in that area. So, yeah, I look forward to that.

And what's next for you? Are you going to be sticking with Bill Evans, doing your own thing, or what?

Yeah, I'm going to stick with Bill Evans. It's a really good gig. I get to see the planet. I get to see the world. I never thought I'd get to see some of these remote parts of Europe that I get to see, like Sicily and Norway. And I was in Lithuania and the Ukraine. We got to tour Poland. So that's really cool, and I love how I'm in jazz school.

But like every artist, I want to put my art out there on display. I did a record two years ago called Songs for the New Frontier. I never got to tour on that because of the economy and everything. The expenses of taking a band on a tour and the potential losses involved—I never did it. But I put it on iTunes, and I promoted it through a publicist to a bunch of radio stations and magazines in the United States. I've brought bluegrass to Europe with Bill Evans, and I've sold that CD everywhere. So what I want to do is, I want to put out a follow-up to Songs for the New Frontier and sell that on iTunes as well. But I'm working on my banjo—sort of my Béla Fleck-ish banjo/ jazz/ space record.

How do you see your sound as different from Béla's?

For one thing, my influences are a lot different. Me and Béla talk about this. He tells me to listen to Chick Corea: "You really should listen to Chick." I listen to Chick, and I think he's great, but I like Herbie Hancock. I like that type of jazz that Herbie played with Miles and Wayne Shorter. The difference is, between me and Béla, is I'm striving to learn more of that at this point than maybe he might. I'm striving to go further than he may have gone. Béla studied a lot of great things, and then he was eager to get out there with the Flecktones. Until I can do that, I'm just going to keep learning.

I also have a different picking style than him. That enables me to play more notes and a lot of fast, up-tempo passages that bebop players tend to express in their improvisations. So, there's some difference, but in some ways, to the Average Joe that knows who Béla Fleck is, Béla Fleck's going to still be it. They might not hear much difference in how we sound. But I'll always try.

Cavanaugh plays with Bill Evans' Soulgrass at Cat's Cradle Saturday, Nov. 15. Local bluegrass band No Strings Attached opens at 8 p.m. Tickets are $18-$22.

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