Jazz Banjo Books

Progressive Banjo

An Interview with Ryan Cavanaugh

Hey Ryan, what are you up to these days musically?

Ryan with John McLaughlin

Ryan with John McLaughlin Click thumbnail for larger view

Things have been very busy for me lately. In early 2006 I innitiated contact with one of my longtime heroes, guitarist john McLaughlin, expressing to him that I wanted to play with him and bring banjo back to the jazz forefront. He invited me to play on a record in the future, and told Bireli Lagrene about me. John tried to get me on Bireli's new record, but it was too late and recording had wrapped up. Bummer.

Wait...How did you contact McLaughlin? Was it just out of the clear blue? Did he know of your playing previously or did you send him a CD? Do you think he recognized a kindred spirit in your rapid-fire technique and tone?

I initially got in contact with John through his website. Out of the blue. I was poor and depressed. I sent pretentious emails to John, Mark O'Connor, and Jerry Douglass. John is the only one to reply at all. He liked my tenacity I think. I talked a big game, but was ready to back it up. I went into the studio and recorded some improvisations, shot him the mp3s, and the rest is history. I have a great job now! He's a great friend. He definitely recognized the similarities in our playing and could also hear that I've listened to an awful lot of his playing.

"In early 2006 I innitiated contact with one of my longtime heroes, guitarist john McLaughlin"

Anyway, a couple weeks later I got a call from Bill Evans, the legendary saxophone player. Bill expressed to me that he was looking for a banjo player for his new Soulgrass project. Bela Fleck had recorded on Bill's Soulgrass album, and he wanted me for the touring. John McLaughlin recommended me for the gig. I later found out that Bela had recommended me as well.

I flew to NYC to audition and ended up making the cut. They ran me through a series of tests that would freak a normal banjoist out. I had to read some charts, I had to swing, play blues, demonstrate my effects, mimic guitarists. It was fun. All while plugged into John Scofield's amplifier. hahaha. That made it even more nerve wracking.

What was Scofield's amp doing at the audition in NY? Was he around?

Sco's amp was in the rehearsal studio in NYC. I think Stern, Scofield, Bill Evans, and Richard Bona might rent out the same space? I know for sure Scofield rehearsed there and that was his amp.

They sent me home with a stack of music and I spent the next two months wood shedding for my first European tour. There is no guitar or piano in the band, so I'm the only guy playing chords. It forced me to learn all new voicings and substitutions. Also, I got more adept at reading musical scores. I read to learn now. No tab for me. It's like I'm forced to break new ground everyday. I love it.

So, I practiced up and flew to NYC for a week of rehearsals with Bill Evans, Joel Rosenblatt (former drums for Spyro Gyra), Ric Fierbracci (former Chick bassist), and Christian Howes (jazz fiddle extraordinare). Five days of rehearsals to get real tight and off to Europe. The tour went great and I finally got to Meet John McLaughlin in Monte Carlo. He sat in on that gig. He is a great friend and I expressed many thanks.

When I returned home, I resumed work on my bluegrass project that had taken the back burner. "Songs For the New Frontier" is now finished and will be available soon.

Is it tough to go from playing jazz back to bluegrass?

Is it a tough transition to go back to bluegrass? Not really. it's definitely easier than jazz, but since the chords have no extensions, I'm finding that I can now be super creative when I play bluegrass. My bluegrass playing wouldn't be considered the most traditional of styles I guess. It's still fun to quote Scruggs though.

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