In today's blog post, I thought I'd talk a bit about my absolute favorite type of playing - banjo-fiddle duets. For the sake of the ears of all involved, I normally stick to banjo in these arrangements (I can play fiddle in the same way that I can also technically ice skate...in the end I get from A to B but the journey is hardly elegant). When done well, banjo fiddle duets are so fun becuase they become a fluid conversation. For example: if the fiddler is playing a pretty constant shuffle, I can either choose to echo that with heavy-handed bum-ditties or choose to contrast their playing by being a bit more notey in response; the decisions I make could, in turn, influence how the fiddler approaches the tune the next time through. In trying to find a niche for myself in a duo, I also end up taking on roles that I wouldnt normally take on when having to support a tune on my own; with another player on melody, I get to do slightly adventurous stuff like trying to invent harmonies or countermelodies on the fly (though a little of this certainly goes a long way : ). Finally, banjo fiddle duets can also turn in to a bit of a chase as well if each player is trying to grab bits of the other's melody for a certain tune.
Overall, this type of playing can become truly....well, "playful" - its not uncommon for both a fiddler and I to start laughing when a tune is finished as if we've both been in on some sort of inside joke. This happend to me most recently in my first gig with "Rock Andy," my old time duo with a local fiddler. We played "Coleman's March" together for the first time while gigging at a local food co-op. Starting the tune I had a moment of panic - she was playing that "bouncy version with a slightly different melody" common to Michigan that I hadn't yet gotten a hang of...however, we had an audience listening (well maybe thats generous...we had "shoppers hearing") so we had to continue with confidence. By the end of the tune, we had kinda merged our versions into a previously-nonexistant hybrid and had both had a blast doing so; what started as a potential train wreck ended up as my favorite tune of that whole gig.
In my mind, the keys to banjo/fiddle duets (and really any sort of small group playing) are 1) listening and 2) responding, which requires flexibity in your playing. For that reason its better to have a handle on several different versions of each tune you play, and a good working knowlege of various banjo tunings for when you have to find notes in a version of a tune you've never heard before. In duets, I also try to alternate between "leading" by introducing new ideas and "following" by giving the fiddler space to introduce ideas of their own; ideally I'm neither always a musical bully nor a musical pushover : ). I also try to force myself to experiment in these contexts - though you can feel a bit exposed without a rhythm section, the whole thing is pretty low-stakes (I mean, its just music, and wrong notes stop rignging pretty quickly after all).
Given my particular soft spot for banjo-fiddle duets, imagine my excitement when Adam Hurt led a class called "playing effectively with an old time fiddler" at Midwest Banjo Camp this past year! For those who don't know, Midwest Banjo Camp (midwestbanjocamp.com), an annual weekend-long banjo extravaganza that occurs only 20 minutes down the road from me in Olivet MI. In this setting, I've been fortunate enough to meet Adam along with a number of other clawhammer greats as well (..Mark Johnson, Bob Carlin, Joe Newberry, Ken Perlman, Michael J. Miles, Walt Koken, Lucas Pool....). In Adam's "playing effectively with an old time fiddler" class, the format was pretty simple - Adam brought his fiddle and went around the room playing duets with all of the ~12 people in the class. After each duet, we dissected some of the decisions that he, and each banjo player, made in the process. By the way, as much as I gush about Adam's banjo playing (for example, here and here), his fiddling is just terrific as well! You can hear a good amount of that on his last album "Fine Times at Our House" (available here); my only complaint about that Album is that it actually doesn't contain the eponymous West Virginia tune....which I just love to play:
Me playing "Fine Times at Our House" amongst other tunes on an OME Northstar as part of my side-gig as the official banjo tester for Elderly instruments. This banjo is just killer BTW.
Hopefully Adam will record "Fine times...." one day as well : )
I'd just like to pause here and make note of something: I honestly can't think of a banjo player I idolize more than Adam Hurt and yet somehow I actually get to talk to, and even play with, this guy at places like Midwest Banjo Camp and Clifftop. The fact that I would ever even get to meet Adam Hurt never occurred to me when I was trying to plunk along to his CDs 5 or 6 years ago - but now we're on a first name basis and I've seen him a couple of times in the past year alone. How many Rolling Stones fans have that experience?? I feel fortunate that in Old Time music I have found a genre where the people at the top of the food chain are so approachable! Of course, it helps that Adam in particular is a very warm and thoughtful guy who makes time for people like me; while not everyone I've met is quite as friendly as Adam, its been my experience that the Old Time community is a pretty welcoming group on balance.
In Adam's class I had so much fun listening to Adam play duets with everyone else that I kind of forgot to pick a tune for my turn until after he'd switched his fiddle to crosstuning. With my choices therefore limited to the Key of A, I suggested we play either "Sandy Boys" or (as a more adventurous suggestion) the Henry Reed tune "Newcastle" (which is alternately known as "Texas"). As a native-born Texan who learned to play banjo ~30 minutes down the road from "Newcastle," my naming-allegances are a bit torn here. However, at Midwest Banjo Camp Ken Perlman told me that Alan Jabbor would be happy to know that I called it "Newcastle"...so thats what I'll go with.
"Newcastle" is a crooked tune, and one that doesn't get called that often in my experience (unless I call it myself). Adam's eyes lit up at this suggestion so away we went! A couple days later I got an email from Linda, another student in the class, with a recording of Adam and I's duet attached - thank you LInda for providing me with my most prized digital posession! I've included this recording (with Adam's blessing) below:
Adam Hurt (fiddle) and I (banjo) jamming out on the Henry Reed tune "Newcastle" (aka "Texas") at Midwest Banjo Camp 2016. Played on El Hefe (El Hefe's origin story here)
I've cut out the "post tune discussion" part of the file because I didn't want to post the voices of the other people in the class on the internet without their permission. I've therefore done a dissection of my own below. In total, we go through the tune 4 times so I'll talk about what happened each of those times to further expemplify the aforementioned "banjo/fiddle conversation" phenomenon:
First time through - At my request Adam started the tune at a pretty moderate pace. It should be said that as with his banjo playing, his rhythm on fiddle is solid! I was clearly a bit nervous at first: if you listen to the second phrase of the first A part, I hit the G note that begins that phrase 3 times in a row, which is a play on the melody that I don't ever recall doing before or since...I'm guessing this "musical studder" was the result of an "oh no, what if I forget the tune in front of all these people??" moment rather than a clever bit of improv on my part : ) Luckily I didn't completely train-wreck (which I'm apt to do on contest stages...though not in Eldery videos for some reason). If you listen closely, Adam and I's versions of the tune started out a bit different, but its clear that he was listening and trying to bring a bit more of my version into his playing as the tune progressed. As an example: there's a bit of symmetry in "Newcastle" in that the A and B parts have the same ending phrase; by the end of the first round of AABB, we've therefore played this phrase 4 times. In the first run through of this phrase (i.e. the end of the first A part) Adam played a really nice triplet ornament, though it clashed a bit with what I was doing; by the end of the second B part, Adam had ditched his ending in favor of something more-closely matched what I was playing on banjo.
Second time through - I got my feet back under me (if I remember correctly, I closed my eyes and tried to shut out the "audience" at this point...) and started the A part with a common trick of mine: going to the low octave. In "Newcastle" this requires me to put some arpeggios in as filler since the melody veers too low for me to get all of the A part in the low octave (...one day I'll get myself a 6 string banjo...). Adam had such a killer melody going that I didn't mind being a bit less melodic and engaging in octave-acrobatics to jump back up to the high octave (once more out of necessity) for the B part however. You can hear that Adam was still skillfully chasing my melody the second time through the tune: his default B part was alot more ornate with a bit different phrasing than what I was doing but if you listen to the second B part on this repeat, he inserts a bit of a pause to catch my phrasing.
Third time through - Adam started by jumping to the low octave for the A part! Clearly he heard what I did the first time through and was trying to join me down there (he actually said as much afterwards). Meanwhile, I naturally guessed incorrectly and went back to the high octave : ) Interestingly, due to the range of the two instruments, this actually put us in the same musical octave, resulting in a really cool sound! I threw my low octave arpeggios in again in the 2nd A part (just for fun...my nerves have dissapated enough at this point to let me pull these kinds of shenanigans) and Adam continued in the low octave for the B part as well; this is likely my favorite run through of the tune. At this point you'll also hear that Adam had slowly mutated his version of "Newcastle" to one that was virtually identical to what I was playing (after only 3 repats....super impressive!). If you listen carefully, you'll hear Adam call "one more" at the end of the third time through - I believe I opened my eyes at this point and rejoined the real world.
Fourth time through - I started low on the first A part hoping to finally "catch" Adam in the low register...but wouldn't you know it, he went high again! I adjusted back to the high octave for the second A part and we finished out with quite compatible B parts due to Adam's aforementioned ability to adjust on the fly.
As I said, Adam is an exceptional player who can pick a lot of what I was doing quite quickly; by comparison, it takes me a bit longer to adjust to an unfamiliar version of a tune. Perhaps given a few more repeats, I could have tried to mirror some of his melodic twists a bit better in return : ). Hopefully I'll get to play with Adam again one day (maybe we can try "Fine Times at Our House" next time)!
That'll do it for this week! I'm posting a day early because I'm braving the snow to drive to New Hampshire and spend the holidays with my wife's family - always a great time! This year, I'm also hanging out with some friends from Boston that I met at Clifftop - freaking amazing! As of yet, no word on the results of the Banjohangout Christmas contest (blogpost on that here), though voting has ended....maybe I'll have some good news on that front next week! Finally, I got back in the studio to record a new Elderly video on a couple Dogwood banjos this past week - check Elderly's youtube channel (here) for that to show up soon!
About this blog
I have lots of ideas about banjo playing and music in general - this blog allows me to get them all out of my head and see what you think.