Dirty Linen Dec/Jan 1992/93
Tony Trischka/Beppe Gambetta
Alone & Together
Brambus 199124-2 (1991)
Between 1973 and 1982, banjoist Tony Trischka produced a series of distinguished albums for Rounder, after which he concentrated his recording activity on the group Skyline. While that band was impressive in concert, the records (on Flying Fish) seemed to be less than the sum of their parts. Worse, we had no solo Trischka "new grass" albums until 1990 Big Dogs With Tony Trischka Live at the Birchmere release (Strictly Country), followed by this 1991 production. While the Big Dog CD is an outstanding recording of a great group in full flight, this CD provides us with the most focused picture of Trischka’s originality that we have had since 1982’s A Robot Plane Flies Over Arkansas album (Rounder 0171).
This beautifully recorded project is primarily a collection of instrumental solo and duet performances by Trischka and Italian virtuoso guitarist Beppe Gambetta, recorded live in various venues around North America. Original compositions by the two players account for approximately half of the performances while an interesting assortment of traditional, classical, and bluegrass pieces arranged by the pair complete the program. Although these covers are often dazzling and provide ample space for creative soloing, the original compositions are what make this CD indispensable. the titles alone give come idea of the unusual terrain explored by the duo: "Solar Energy," "Lake Flora," "Perriopolis," "West Bank of the Eno," to name a few.
Gambetta’s compositions are enjoyable, with "Solar Energy" the strongest. Both Trischka and the guitarist exploit the dark, brooding quality of this number in their intricate solos. His other compositions are uniformly well constructed and certainly "prettier," though somewhat less distinctive, than those of Trischka’s, whose quirkiness remains one of his most appealing characteristics. "West Bank of the Eno" is an enchanting masterpiece of Trischka-style eccentricity, and should be a genuine eye opener for fans of Bela Fleck’s who believe that Bela sprang forth from a vacuum. "Improviso Libro," a solo banjo free improvisation allows Trischka to display both his gigantic technique and restless imagination. Would it be financial suicide for a record company to allow him an entire album of solo compositions and improvisations?
I suspect that this recording will remain a unique achievement in the output of both men. An essential release.
Bluegrass Unlimited, February 1992
Tony Trischka/Beppe Gambetta
Alone & Together
Brambus Records 199124-2 (CD)
Black Mountain Rag/ Solar Energy/Maibaum/ Highway 80/Medly: Reuben’s Train-Soldier’s Joy/ Lake Flora/Perriopolis/ Medley: Red Haired Boy-Crazy Fingers-Roanoke/ My Country ‘Tis of Thee/Improviso Libro/ Family Whistle/ I’m Sorry Nicolo (Perpetual Motion)/West Bank of the Eno/Lonesome Road Blues/ Dear Old Dixie.
No, it’s not bluegrass.
Now that we have that out of the way, the purists can move on the next review and the rest of us can try and figure out how to get a handle on this exotic and exciting album.
Everybody knows about Trischka’s radical approach to para-bluegrass music and - like anchovies, scotch whiskey and the dessert - no one is indifferent to it. You either hate Trischka’s music or you adore it and this recording will push you one notch further in either direction. Suffice it to say that on this new recording of mostly five duets with Italian guitar wizard Beppe Gambetta, Tony more than out-Trischka’s himself.
As per usual (and then some), Trischka wreaks utter havoc on melodic technique, serving up a bewildering array of original compositions and bizarre, infectious and sometimes inflammatory treatments of traditional tunes. A perfect example of Tony’s uniquely fluid approach to technique-as-composition is his "Lake Flora." It is a dense pensive, twisting and complex solo journey; listening to it is like slipping down a dark, curving tunnel. As an adaptor, Trischka’s punkgrass version of "Soldier’s Joy" or his funky arrangement of "My Country ‘Tis of Thee" (an endless string of triplets, with the melody strung along the top) isn’t going to win him anymore converts down at the VFD jam session.
In all of the above, Beppe Gambetta is the perfect match on guitar. As a native and practicing Italian, Gambetta is even further out of America’s flatpicking mainstream than Trischka is out of its banjo-picking mainstream. Indeed, there are scarce references to Watson, White, Blake or Rice in any of his work, at least as represented on this CD. Rather, Gambetta plays in a highly non-linear, densely layered, multi-melodic style. His guitar playing is the musical equivalent of impressionist painting: it defines melody and rhythm through a thousand flecks of color instead of the tracing of literal shapes. In addition to picking, rolling, strumming and chopping, Gambetta uses every possible auxiliary technique available to the inventive guitarist, including harmonics, tremolo, slaps, overtones and a whole host of percussive bumps and grinds. The result is a harp-like wall of guitar music, all delivered with a remarkable level of sustain.
Gambetta’s style is central to this project’s remarkable fullness of sound, despite the near absence of any supporting characters. Even on a simple rhythm strum, Gambetta rolls his pick to create a heavy, chord-echoing ringiness. The resulting aural width and breadth more than adequately supports Trischka’s banjo. Here as elsewhere, although this is a duet there is nearly as much to listen to and keep track of as on any full band album.
Other highlights are an incredibly fast version of "Dear Old Dixie," with both pickers displaying a tremendous amount of control despite the ferocious tempo and an aptly titled fiddle tune, "Perpetual Motion." Talk about truth in advertising. Penned by Italian fiddler Nicolo Paganini, "Perpetual Motion" is four minutes and two seconds of nearly constant eighth notes.
If much of this sounds self-indulgent, that’s because it most definitely is. As it should be. There are lots of pickers out there who are technically amazing and there are lots of musicians out there who are amazingly creative. These guys are both. It’s a free country, Beppe. Indulge away. (Brambus Records, P.O. Box 216, CH 7001 Chur, Switzerland)