By David Royko
On The Edge
PETE WERNICK'S LIVE FIVE
I TELL YOU WHAT!
Sugar Hill SHCD-3854
Sky Rider/Fire Dance/Jobob Rag/Dear Old Dixie/D-Funk/Playground Swing/Huckling The Berries/Go Cheetahs Go/Free As The Wind/June Apple/Plain And Fancy/Round The Horn/Daybreak In Dixie
After many years of devoting most of his playing and recording time to the now defunct Hot Rize, and taking 16 years between his first and second solo albums, here is Pete Wernick's third album, coming less than three years after his second. This is more like it, since Wernick is among the most creative and just plain fun musicians in the world of [takes yer choice: blue, new, jazz]grass. He also enjoys surprises, and though the instrumentation of his band, "The Live Five," may surprise some, it will not come as a shock to anybody who picked up Wernick's 1993 "On A Roll" CD [Sugar Hill], which included 5 tracks with this grouping of Wernick's banjo with clarinet, vibes, bass, and drums.
Right there, you know that this is not your average banjo album, and it is not a typical jazz album either. In fact, what may be most impressive about The Live Five is the cross-pollination that takes place while each member remains true to his instrument's strengths. Wernick doesn't do anything radical with his banjo or technique, but simply plays in his well-established and influential style that clearly fits bluegrass. Likewise his sidemen, who play like jazzers, do not sound like they are trying to fit their instrumentations to suit a banjo picking leader, though fit they do.
The key to this successful blending of what might appear to be disparate worlds and tonalities (plectral strings with reed and mallet instruments sure ain't the norm) is Wernick's superb composing and arranging abilities that seem to offer plenty of common ground while allowing each player to retain the personality of their instruments and playing styles.
Even on his closest brushes with basic, driving bluegrass, Flatt & Scruggs' "Dear Old Dixie," the original "Go Cheetahs Go," and Ralph Stanley's "Daybreak In Dixie," the non-bluegrass instruments sound just fine, thanks in large part to Wernick's keen ear for sleek arranging. And Wernick's brilliant move of running (or should we say moseying) through "Dear Old Dixie" at a slow gait, its melody lovingly caressed by Bill Pontarelli's clarinet, before launching into the expected tempo makes one appreciate this warhorse anew.
The nine Wernick compositions are the true heart of this set, however, and there are delights at every turn, from the gently low-down groove of "D-Funk," to the mildly vertiginous "Playground Swing," and especially in the wistful, bittersweet flavor of "Free As The Wind." These are melodies rich with character that draw the listener in on the first as easily as the fifteenth hearing.
Wernick's group is a solid one, built up from the firm yet feathery drumming of Breakfast Special alum Kris Ditson, who knows how to play without masking the tones of the banjo, sticking to brushes most of the time. Electric bassist Rich Moore is noticeable only when you look for him, which in my book is perfect for this type of music. His rhythm is consistently "in the pocket," and he never draws attention to himself, selflessly providing exactly what is needed and avoiding what is not.
Vibist George Weber solos with an ear toward melody, and has a penchant for quick ascending and descending rolling figures, and also seems to enjoy lines that bubble up from the lower reaches into the shimmering middle and upper realm of the vibes. Overall, his playing is understated and soft-toned, and I for one would not mind hearing a bit more tension in his harmonies and some chance-taking with the rhythms.
One obvious association to having banjo and clarinet together is dixieland, and though it is hinted at in the Flatt & Scruggs tune as well as Bob Wills' and Tommy Duncan's "Jobob Rag," this is music far removed from that style of collectively improvised early ensemble jazz. And though Wernick's notes suggest that clarinetist Pontarelli brings a dixieland sound to the group, I hear more swing than dixie in his approach. His tone, if not quite as smooth as a Benny Goodman or Artie Shaw, is certainly lightyears removed from the grit of an Edmond Hall or the wheeze of a Pee Wee Russell. And like Weber, I wouldn't mind hearing a little more of what has been referred to as jazz's "sound of surprise" in his solos, especially since Wernick is a banjoist who loves to take risks. For example, on "Plain And Fancy," an original that Wernick recorded for his 1977 Flying Fish album, "Dr. Banjo Steps Out," his banjo is treated with a phase shifter, as striking an effect now as it was then. But the most jarring element of that recording was Andy Statman's mandolin solo, which began with a three-against-two cross-rhythm. In 1996, Weber and Pontarelli take perfectly nice solos, with the clarinetist even reprising the cross-rhythm intro. However, such lurching idiosyncrasies that mark Statman's style are what I find missing.
But this is nitpicking at what is an exciting and intriguing release. Fans of banjo, jazz, and Wernick's should make this a priority purchase.
(Sugar Hill, P.O. Box 55300, Durham, NC 27717-5300) DR