The national popularity of bluegrass music might ebb and flow with social and artistic trends, but the quality of picking and musical ability has stayed on an impressively upward trajectory throughout the decades. Anyone who keeps up with the music knows that this is especially true in the world of banjos. We see the newest generation exploring the instrument and its various playing styles in unique and creative ways. While Bela Fleck, Bill Keith, and Tony Trischka might have set a high bar for melodic playing, there are just too many combinations of 3 fingers playing 4 note phrases on 5 strings to ever stop exploring and creating. Most of us, I assume, are well aware of the hot players in today’s music scene, but you might not be aware of a rare banjo anomaly who has spent the last 9 years playing jazz throughout Europe, Russia and all parts of the world. I use the word “anomaly” because “amazing” and “talented” just do not properly describe the improvisational skills and musicianship of Ryan Cavanaugh.
For a guy that sight reads John Coltrane solos for fun (more on that later), Ryan came into bluegrass honestly and simply. “One of my earliest memories is hearing the banjo on records and watching my father play,” says Cavanaugh. “From Doc Watson records to Disney children’s songs, I heard banjo from day one of my recorded memory.” From a young age, Ryan’s father not only consistently played the banjo for him, but he also laid down an impressive musical foundation by exposing him to the basics of all western music: orchestral, jazz, and The Beatles. At 10 years old, Ryan found his father’s banjo in the closet and has been hooked ever since. “I was immediately intrigued with the sound and wanted to play like Earl Scruggs.”
Two years later, Cavanaugh heard Bela Fleck and describes it as an “ah-ha!” moment. “I heard Charlie Parker in my father’s record collection, and I immediately made the connection between that and the piano and harmonica in Béla’s music.” (I don’t recommend comparing what you were doing at 12 with Ryan sonically connecting Charlie Parker with Bela Fleck.) “I really liked what Béla’s concept was in this music, I also quickly understood the traditional bebop role that his other instrumentation was bringing to the musical table,” says Ryan.
Ryan then made the next logical leap in those pre-internet days, by tracking down the instructional melodic banjo books by Tony Trischka. Tony’s books opened up the fretboard for countless banjo players through the ’80s and ’90s, but something was still missing from what he was hearing in his head and what he was playing. As he was turning 16, Cavanaugh met someone who would ultimately change his life: Tom Marino, his high school music teacher. Marino, a jazz keyboard player from New Jersey, taught Cavanaugh how to read notation and to understand basic diatonic chord movement. “I had also just started using my 3rd finger in some single string passages [a technique he’s become well known for]. This was another big ‘ah-ha’ moment,” says Ryan, “and the beginning of a long journey into jazz and bluegrass.”
When you see Ryan play, you quickly realize that his single-string technique is unique and freakishly clean in both tone and tempo. In fact, several years ago, Cavanaugh and his good friend, teacher, and fellow banjo/fiddle master, Rex McGee, showed up at a bluegrass jam in Winston-Salem, and we all noticed that Ryan was playing high-speed bluegrass standards in the key of B without a capo. (For the non-banjo players out there, the speed and precision of the banjo sound relies on using open strings while the fingers of your left hand are changing fretted notes. The key of “B” with no capo only has one open string so your left hand has to move 2 or 3 times as fast to achieve the bluegrass sound. This physical feat is practically unheard of outside of Don Reno.)
Cavanaugh has released three albums, all completely unique in identity and style. Songs For The New Frontier would be considered his “bluegrass” album, recorded in 2004-2005 and featuring John Garris on guitar, Darrell Muller on bass, Danny Knicely on mandolin, Billy Cardine on dobro, and Rex McGee on fiddle. This album, a virtuosic project in every measurement, features the expected great picking, but listening to it closely you start to hear Ryan’s unique sense of melody and composition. Darrell Muller, bassist on the album and also for Love Canon (known for their amazing bluegrass renditions of classic ’80s music) remembers the project: “I was privileged enough to be invited to be the bass player for Songs For The New Frontier, and it was an unbelievable experience. Ryan sent me the demo tracks to work on prior to recording, and I knew this would be a life-changing experience. The odd time signatures, blistering fast melodies and solos, and captivating chord changes: this album has it all.”
The quicker songs on the album are all impressive and exciting, but it’s in the slower songs that we notice the depth of his compositions. The Ballad of Edgar Boone, The Guns of El Ridoggo, and Song For The North State all build around a type of sonic patience that can be so rare in today’s music, especially in the bluegrass realm. Ryan’s melodies and phrasing are allowed to just exist within their own time, as if giving the listener a moment to comprehend each note’s relation to the next, and to understand their place within a harmonic context that is both weirdly odd at one moment and soothingly comprehensible the next. There’s always a tense energy in his playing that he could be showing off, but he instead consciously chooses to go where the song and melody leads.
In the early 2000s, there were whispers floating around bluegrass circles of a young player learning Charlie Parker solos on the banjo. Young virtuosos are neither common nor rare in the bluegrass world—one of the unique traits of this music—but this was different. To have both the physical and mental ability to read and play some of the most complex western music of modern times is not common within bluegrass and caught people’s attention. “I learned how to read standard music notation and began applying it to the banjo,” explains Ryan. “Reading music was the easy part. Placing it on the banjo was an entire process very different from the bluegrass language. It took patience and a lot of hard practice. After I learned all of my scales and their modes, I then learned them in every key. That in itself is like learning an alphabet for a language, but then you need words to speak, followed by sentence construction (phrasing). So, it took a while and a ton of experimenting to apply the scales and modes to music I already knew (bluegrass). After the process of finding where all the notes in all the keys were, I began reading easy songs out of a fiddle book. Once I was able to read fiddle tunes easily, I transitioned to reading Charlie Parker solos.”
After spending the latter part of his teenage years immersed in jazz and fusion, Cavanaugh decided it was time to start touring. “I was experimenting with electric banjo at that time,” Ryan says, “and delving into some serious avant-garde music for the banjo. I formed SpaceStation Integration to use as a platform for my compositions and to educate myself in the electric band forum.”
After 5 years with SpaceStation Integration, Ryan released Songs for The New Frontier and thought his career was headed back into the bluegrass world, but things took an interesting turn. “I was recommended to play in saxophonist Bill Evans’ band. I was recommended for the gig by fusion guitarist John McLaughlin and Béla Fleck.” This was a huge decision for Ryan as he realized that Bill Evan’s career was overseas and he would be giving up his focus on bluegrass. One of the determining factors ended up being McLaughlin’s recommendation. “He is my biggest hero, and I was delighted to take the gig and to become friends with my hero.”