The Slavek Hanzlik Trio
by David Royko
Chicago is a tough town for bluegrass. Sure, Bill Monroe spent some time in the area early in his career, and the University of Chicago Folk Festival has been around forever, and folk cafes, clubs and coffee houses were once common in the late 1960s and '70s. But if ever there were glory days for bluegrass in Chicago, those days are long gone. Greg Cahill and his Special Consensus Bluegrass Band has for years been the only major established bluegrass presence in town, at least until now. The big news is that Czech flatpicker Slavek Hanzlik has formed the Slavek Hanzlik Trio in Chicago. The irony is that Chicago's newest group is lead by a musician who did not even touch American soil until 1985. But if there ever was a city of diversity, Chicago is that city.
The Slavek Hanzlik Trio includes banjoist Tuey Connell and bassist Brett Simons. Both are Chicago area players with eclectic tastes and experience, which are reflected in the contemporary style in which the band excels. Hanzlik himself is best known for his 1992 Flying Fish CD, "Spring In The Old Country," which features Bela Fleck, Stuart Duncan and Mark Schatz, as well as the recent Sierra CD, "Summer Solstice," which features those players plus Tim O'Brien and Rob Ickes. He also appears on Emory Lester's "Pale Rider" CD, along with Tony Trischka and Ray Legere. One would expect that a player who has obviously earned the respect of some of the best musicians in the business would himself be, if not a household name, at least a well known commodity. But Hanzlik's has been a relatively low public profile, even if he is celebrated in musicians' circles. This is due primarily to the circuitous path that led him to bluegrass and new acoustic music.
Born in Prague, Czechoslovakia, in 1957, Slavek's family was not one of professional musicians, but not for lack of trying.
"My mom's parents forced her to play violin when she was a kid because my grandfather, who didn't know a lot about music, knew that Paganini was a great virtuoso, and he kept threatening that if his daughter didn't make it, then I would be the Paganini," says Hanzlik. "So they tortured two generations of people with violin lessons. I took violin lessons from the age of 6 to 13. I couldn't relate to it. Too much time was eaten up by musical theory, instead of just playing.
"So I quit, which I regret today because I'd rather be a fiddle player, or a violin player, than a guitar player. Guitar is not a very expressive instrument, in my opinion. It is to all of us who listen to it all the time, or play it, but I think the violin is the most expressive instrument. I wish someone had shown me a simple tune, something I could have related to, but they didn't, so I quit the fiddle."
Next came the guitar, but it was awhile before Hanzlik took the instrument seriously, spending more time playing rock and roll in an attempt to impress girls rather than honing his licks. Then everything changed.
"When I heard Doc Watson, that was the major moment. This friend of mine made me a tape of 'Doc & Merle Live On Stage,' on Vanguard. That was the album I slept with. I loved it. It was like my bible. After a couple of years my whole family got really sick of listening to it over and over. They wouldn't hear anything other than this and a few other recordings by Doc. He made me listen to the guitar differently. I used to say 'How the hell does he do this?'
"It was years before I ever got to buy the record. I saw my friend's album. It was the first time I saw a Gallagher guitar, and I remember studying the picture on the album.
"So I'd practice maybe the whole day, and then the next day nine hours. I was acting like a child who was behind, because already I was twenty years old, and all I was interested in between 17 and 20 was drinking beer, having a good time, playing soccer, playing hockey. So this was a real change.
"The first bluegrass I was listening to was the Seldom Scene and the Country Gentlemen. The first band I was in was copying all of their stuff because of the singing and beautiful harmonies."
It was not long before Hanzlik and his bands were winning national competitions in Czechoslovakia, but at the same time, the world beyond communist borders was beckoning.
"In 1982, four years after I started playing bluegrass, my wife and I left Czechoslovakia, and first went to Germany. One reason that I wanted to leave was to be close to where bluegrass was. We had two suitcases with our clothes. I didn't even have a guitar. We didn't know any language but Czech. No German, no English, nothing. We were starting from zero. We had a little cash, which I blew on a guitar the moment we crossed the border."
So, after a "day job" of teaching physics, mathematics, and drafting in Czechoslovakia, Hanzlik found himself fixing shoes in Germany.
"I was looking for a job that I wouldn't regret to leave. So I fixed shoes for three years while also working as a musician, even playing some mandolin, fiddle, electric guitar, and bass. I wasn't sleeping more than three or four hours a day. I was very tired. My wife was doing some commercial art, but mainly she was selling her watercolor paintings."
Finally, Hanzlik found his way to the land of Watson.
"In 1985, we made our first trip to the United States. We flew to Texas, and rented a little Chevette, and for four weeks we drove seven or eight thousand miles, up to Tennessee, down to New Orleans. I saw all these things I was real interested in, like the Station Inn and Gruhns guitar store."
Upon returning to Europe, Hanzlik continued his efforts to cross the Atlantic permanently.
"I was looking for a job offer either in the US or Canada, because that would be our only chance to get out of Europe. We never wanted to stay in Germany. We just got stuck.
"So this offer came from Winnipeg, and we sold everything, came to the U.S. in October of '86, rented a car in Atlanta, and drove to the Canadian border. One of the reasons we did it that way was that I had a guitar made by Don Gallagher, the same as Doc Watson. In Germany, a GI friend stationed there used to come for a visit and bring a bottle of Jack Daniels, and he brought a catalog from the Jack Daniels Distillery. And there it was, this Gallagher guitar. And I thought, 'What the hell is a Don Gallagher guitar doing in the Jack Daniels catalog?' So I saved up some money, ordered one, and on the way to Canada, picked it up in Tennessee. It was a great moment in my life to all of a sudden have the same guitar as Doc. That was my first good guitar."
His introduction to life in Canada came quickly.
"It was cold, and frustrating because when it gets down to 34 below zero, you can't go out. Changing countries, changing the climate, a new language, saying goodbye to all your friends and having to make all new friends, it felt like, 'Hey, I've done this once already.' And six days after we arrived, Winnipeg experienced the biggest snow storm since 1961. The city shut down. Nobody worked, nothing worked. 'Welcome To Canada!'"
As harsh as life could be in Winnipeg, it still allowed Hanzlik access to the land of his dreams, and he eventually made extended excursions to Music City.
"We loved going to Nashville because the climate was great, and musically it was heaven. I was washing dishes in a restaurant for four dollars an hour, four hours a day. We didn't have any expenses except for beer, cigarettes, and tickets for the Station Inn."
Soon, Hanzlik made a friend who would prove critical to his music career.
"This is when I met Vassar Clements. After a few months, he started taking me out for gigs, and I started playing with his local Nashville band at places like the Station Inn and the Bluebird Cafe. That was my first gig with Vassar, the Bluebird Cafe.
"I was really working on my rhythm guitar playing, and Vassar was helping me. Gene Wooten was playing dobro, Terry Eldredge played bass. I got something from Vassar that you don't get from any book or school. I learned to approach music from the friendliest angle that you can. Try to be friends with the music. Try not to see it as something challenging or impossible to achieve. When you play with Vassar, he will make you feel that you're on the same level as him or anyone else. He is able to give people self confidence, on stage or even just rehearsing. The first time I saw Vassar was on TV, in Winnipeg. I saw him doing these incredible fiddle moves with a pipe in his mouth! No nervousness, no stage fright, the stuff I'd been fighting for years. This guy had it all.
"Being with Vassar helped me see how certain musical things are possible. Breaking the rules sometimes. Paying attention to what works instead of theoretically what's right. And it was through Vassar that I met all the musicians."
One musician Slavek met was Doc Watson, even though picking with Doc was a dream that almost didn't happen.
"I was in a workshop with Doc. The night before, Doc said to me, 'I think I'm going to cancel the workshop tomorrow, because I'm not a blues player, and I've told them a million times that I'm not a blues player, and they go ahead and put me in a blues workshop.' And I told him, 'You've recorded a lot of blues. Even if you don't consider yourself a blues player, you definitely know how to play the blues.' And he said 'I feel like telling them that I'm not going to do the workshop.' And I'm thinking, 'This may be the only time in my life I get to play with Doc Watson, and he's not going to do it because he thinks he's not a blues player?' I was really afraid, but it worked out OK. We ended up playing one tune just me and him together. I was so nervous, man."
Another great moment came with his chance to play with Big Mon himself.
"I think Vassar suggested to Bill Monroe that I come up on stage to play with him. My wife had painted his portrait, and we'd gone over to his house, but I never really talked to him about music. He doesn't even seem to enjoy talking about music. He likes to talk about the deer that come every night, and the birds and his dogs. He's an interesting guy.
"I've had a few moments that I consider really big, and one of them was playing with Bill Monroe on stage. And the next one was playing that workshop with Doc. When I was in Prague, I never knew if I'd ever even see them in person, never mind play with them."
Soon, Hanzlik began composing, and the opportunity to do something special with his tunes practically fell into his lap.
"I was back in Winnipeg, and I was working on some original tunes. Mark Schatz was one of the people I met in Nashville through Vassar, along with Bela Fleck and Stuart Duncan, and at the 1989 Merle Watson festival, Schatz offered to help me do a demo tape. He said if I had a little bit of money to get some people, right after the festival we could record in his basement. He asked Bela Fleck if he could play on a couple tunes, but it was unlikely because he'd be in town only for a couple of days and then on the road with New Grass Revival. So Mark suggested Stuart Duncan since he had time, and he could do both mandolin and fiddle. So we started recording a demo tape of 'Gypsyland' and 'Spring In The Old Country,' the two original tunes I had. Then in the middle of the session, Bela showed up and said, 'I've got a couple hours, you need me to play on some things?' So we did 'Bill Cheatham' and 'Belame Fiddle.'
"I ended up with this demo that we did in four hours, and Mark mixed it the next morning. This was my first serious recording studio experience, and it was with some of the best musicians in the world."
With what could be described as a 'super demo' in hand, Hanzlik headed back to Winnipeg and quickly put the tape to good use.
"In Canada, there is the Cultural Industry Development Office, which supports a lot of film, but also a little bit of music. I thought there might be a way to get money for recording from CIDO. I said 'Here's the demo, I want to cut a whole record.' I didn't even have enough material to cut a whole record, but I figured if I got the deal, why not? Originally, I didn't even want to record an album. I just wanted to get some musicians to record some of my tunes to see what they'd sound like. I didn't know whether my own tunes were any good. I didn't have much confidence. But 6 months later I got a letter from CIDO saying they'd finance my recording."
With that news, Slavek called Mark Schatz, who agreed to produce the album. This was one recording, however, that could not be made in Nashville.
"I had to record in Canada so the money would stay in the province. I gave CIDO the budget, they gave me some money, I booked the studio, and flew Mark, Bela and Stuart to Winnipeg, and this was in the middle of the winter, January of 1990. We had one day of rehearsal, then we went to the studio and cut the record in 4 days, and mixed it in two days. Then they flew back to Nashville."
The term "buyer's remorse" is used to describe the psychological distress that hits a consumer after a major purchase, when the buyer is wondering if he did the right thing. What Slavek was going through after his recording sessions could be described as "picker's remorse."
"Two days after you do an album, you feel so bad. You feel like the worst musician in the world. That's how I feel always after recording. I feel that there is no bigger loser playing guitar than me."
Slavek's reservations did not extend to the supporting cast surrounding him.
"Let's face it, Bela Fleck didn't have to prove on my album who he is, and neither did Stuart Duncan and Mark Schatz. They all knew that we were trying to present my original stuff in the best way we possibly could. Instead of showcasing their own skills, they went beyond the flash, proving what great musicians they are by supporting someone's piece and trying to make it a great number. These guys helped me arrange things. Nobody tried to step on anyone else. It was a good lesson on how to play tastefully instead of trying to impress everyone with hot licks."
Initially, Hanzlik issued a cassette of "Spring In The Old Country" himself.
"I had the money from the government, but I had to put in my own money too, to match the grant. So I was selling the tape to try to make back some of the money, and all of a sudden the record got more attention than I ever expected."
In 1992, Bruce Kaplan released "Spring In The Old Country" on Flying Fish, and had similar intentions for Hanzlik's next project, before Kaplan's tragically premature death intervened.
"Bruce Kaplan was going to release my second album, and two days after that meeting, he died. When he died, the record idea disappeared. So here I was basically losing all of this momentum, because the whole year was booked to promote the next album, which now I wasn't able to do without a record company, because of the money. So I had to go borrow the money. I figured I had the musicians, I had the tunes, what did I lack? The money. But its easier to get money than it is to get great musicians."
Any assumptions that a second album would be easier to make than a first went swiftly out the window.
"'Summer Solstice' was hard. Its harder to make a second album. With the first one, if I blew it, people would forgive me because it was my first try. So I threw half the tunes in the garbage. I was super critical. The first album was more straight ahead, more bluegrassy. The guitar was expressed stronger as the lead instrument than on 'Summer Solstice.' I thought maybe some people might be disappointed because they're not getting hot licks all over the place.
"I was sitting on the bus from Nashville back to Winnipeg listening to these tapes, with this washing machine effect in my head, every 3 seconds a different idea, like you see the colors going by in the washing machine window. I'd say 'I hate this tune, I'm going to remix that tune, and I'm going to get rid of the next tune because its no good.' Then I'd get tired and fall asleep, and five hours later I would listen again and have different ideas. I was calling Mark Schatz every couple of days. After a couple of weeks I started listening to it not as a writer or performer, and from that moment I started liking it."
Soon after, Slavek started making extended visits to the Chicago area, finally deciding to base his band there to take advantage of the abundant talent the city offers. He devised the Slavek Hanzlik Trio with the idea of creating a unit that was both distinctive and flexible.
"Tuey Connell is hungry to learn new music, and he is a very good musician. I never really thought that the banjo would be the best choice for the Trio. Banjo can be very difficult to work with. Its not mandolin or fiddle, which can adapt. The banjo can be abrasive on gentle stuff. But it depends on the player. In the right hands, it can be a great rhythm instrument, and a very gentle instrument as well.
"For a bassist, Tuey recommended Brett, and it really worked as a trio. Brett's bowing ability is a real asset."
Though the band's instrumentation says "bluegrass," the Trio is not a bluegrass group per se.
"I always wanted to have my own band that would be able to play my material, but I always knew it should not be a bluegrass band because it would be like having a bluegrass band that plays mainly fiddle tunes. People would say 'Well, its a pretty good bluegrass band, they just don't sing much.' As a trio you're not automatically expected to sound like a bluegrass band. I want to be flexible enough to approach a bluegrass festival promoter, or a jazz festival promoter, or someone who runs a coffee house. I think we can appeal to an audience that doesn't have a specific preference, but that likes contemporary music of any kind, whether classically oriented, or whatever. Sometimes these people are easier to please with a good product than people who are straight bluegrass, or something else. Being a trio, hopefully nobody will think we are trying to be a bluegrass band but we're just missing a mandolinist or fiddler.
"There's an idea behind the Trio. You have to texturize the music, and you have to pay a lot of attention to arrangements so every piece doesn't become a jamming piece, but something you have to work on. Once you find your sound, it doesn't matter what you play. It could be a fiddle tune, a classical piece, a jazz piece, because your presenting your own sound."
Essential to this sound are the other members of the Trio, who bring a wealth of experience to the group. Born in 1967 and raised in Connecticut, banjoist Tuey Connell grew up in a musical household that engaged in after-dinner folk singalongs, lead by his guitar-strumming mother. It was his mom who suggested the banjo to Tuey, and it was Bela Fleck who became his first major influence while still in high school.
"Upon hearing Bela, I heard this mix of technique, style, and coolness," says Connell. "It transcended the stereotype of what goes with the banjo. The quality and feel of his playing really grabbed me. I remember getting Banjo Newsletter, and working out 'Dear Old Dixie' from there, using Bela's version from 'Crossing The Tracks.' It's so sharp. He's hard driving there, but in a hip way."
Connell also cites jazz musicians as big influences, particularly guitarists Wes Montgomery and Pat Metheny, saxophonists Cannonball Adderley and Stan Getz, pianists Keith Jarrett and Bill Evans, and trumpeter Miles Davis. In college, he used to bombard his music professors with music that probably stretched them as much as Connell himself was being stretched.
"At Lake Forest College, I was composing and analyzing classical music. And I'd bring in Bela tunes and a Tony Rice tune and a New Grass Revival tune, and then a Wes Montgomery tune, a Pat Metheny tune, and I'd want to analyze all these different things."
With degree in hand, Tuey decided to pursue music full time, and eventually formed his own band, which he continues to lead.
"When I graduated, I applied to the Illinois Arts Council, and I got a five thousand dollar grant to do a project. So that's how I got the Tuey Connell Group together. Its a sextet, and the challenge is how to fit the banjo into all these instruments, like keyboards, percussion, sax, drums, latin percussion. My tunes are tightly composed and arranged for this group. My view is orchestral.
"The amplification of the instrument is another challenge. I play electric and acoustic with that group, and for my electrics, I'm using Deerings."
The Hanzlik Trio provides Tuey with a new set of challenges.
"The Trio probably is the most exciting band I've ever played with. I love my jazz band, but its a different type of thing. The Trio is musical, its technically challenging, its minimalist in that there are only three instruments, so you've really got to work. Everyone in the group is of equal importance. I find Slavek's music challenging. He uses unconventional voicings and chordings, his phrasing is different from typical bluegrass style compositions. They are really unique, and we're working on some new tunes that move into a freeish genre, like [jazz record label] ECM style. That's where Brett and I come from, yet I come from bluegrass too. Its a neat juxtaposition, all these styles."
Bassist Brett Simons, born in Indiana in 1969, was a virtual stranger to bluegrass prior to the formation of the Hanzlik Trio. He played piano, drums, guitar and bass in high school, before winning a music scholarship to the University of Miami. But it was jazz that called most strongly to him in high school.
"During High School, I had some friends who turned me on to Ornette [Coleman], which was my first taste of avant garde," says Simons. "[Ornette Coleman bassist Charlie] Haden was probably my biggest influence in my upright playing. I love his music. He's not all over the fingerboard. He really sings through the bass."
After touring with various rock and Caribbean musicians, Brett found himself back in the Chicago area, and with the Slavek Hanzlik Trio, which exposed him to yet another style of music.
"I heard bluegrass growing up in Indiana. I sat in on some folky jams. But outside of that, its been Tuey & Slavek that have really been my introduction to the idiom. When I heard it when I was younger, I never new if I'd be patient enough to play it because so much of it is up-tempo, and harmonically, it didn't seem like people were listening to one another. But I found that its more mechanical, not in a bad way, but in that you have five instrumentalists up there locking rhythmically, and its a different groove.
"As a bass player you have to sit in with a group and you must immediately adapt to a time feel. With bluegrass, you're on top if not ahead of the beat. With jazz, you're on top or behind the beat if you want a more laid back feel. If you do that in bluegrass, you're out of place, and as a matter of fact, I've been out of place quite often lately.
"I don't really see much connection between bluegrass and jazz, except for the blues. There's jazz on one side of the blues, and bluegrass on the other. Otherwise, bluegrass is pretty much just bluegrass. Harmonically, I can sit in and decipher the progressions on the spot. But rhythmically, its definitely more of a challenge, and newer to me."
Brett finds the Trio the perfect vehicle for his talents.
"Its a great introduction to the bluegrass idiom for me because its not strict, and I'm able to offer my influences, like jazz and Caribbean styles. I play salsa grooves, whether people notice or not, while Slavek is up there playing these beautiful bluegrass lines. And I like that combination, and somehow the chemistry is there, and it works."
Not surprisingly, the expanded language of the progressive players has appealed to Simons.
"Initially, the Jerry Douglas/Russ Barenberg/Edgar Meyer trio really influenced me. It was like, "Wow, this can be done with a trio." Through that I got into Strength In Numbers, and then Vassar Clements, and from that I heard [bassist] Roy Huskey. To me, he is the man, because his sound is so organic, sort of the Charlie Haden of bluegrass. And of course, Mark Schatz, because I've learned all his lines off of Slavek's material."
So, take one Doc Watson fanatic from Czechoslovakia, add a Fleck freak with strong Pat Metheny leanings, and stir in a bass player who loves the jazz avant garde, and what you get is the Slavek Hanzlik Trio. And like Chicago's weather, if you don't like what they play at any given moment, stick around for a few minutes, and it will undoubtedly change.
The Slavek Hanzlik Trio can be contacted at 4517 North Paulina, Chicago, Illinois, 60640. Phone (312) 334-8453.