For those of you not familiar with Ryan Cavanaugh, some might tell you that he is world’s leading jazz banjo player. Others might claim that he is one of the most creative and dynamic bluegrass instrumentalists they’ve heard. Whatever the case, if you know Ryan Cavanaugh, you know that he simply loves to play the banjo.Still in his twenties, Ryan Cavanaugh may be bluegrass banjo’s best-kept secret. He has already earned a reputation as a jazz banjo phenomenon while touring with saxophone legend Bill Evans (known for his work with Miles Davis and John McLaughlin) in the band Soulgrass. With “Songs for the New Frontier,” Cavanaugh shows that musical knowledge and incredible skills can go hand in hand with great bluegrass. Moving seamlessly between Scruggs-style and single-string playing, Cavanaugh’s astounding technique is used to add drive and power to his bluegrass sound. Backed by an all-star band of other young innovators, “Songs for the New Frontier” has compelling melodies, inventive harmonies, a hard-driving groove, and creative and energetic soloing‚Äîit’s an album of traditional sounds exploring new territory for the contemporary listener.”Songs for the New Frontier” was engineered by Billy Cardine (The Biscuit Burners) at Indidog Studio and mastered by Bill Wolf, known for his work with Tony Rice and other top acoustic musicians. Cavanaugh assembled a powerhouse band of Rex McGee (fiddle), Billy Cardine (Dobro), Danny Knicely (mandolin), John Garris (guitar), and Darrell Muller (bass)‚Äîall top-notch on their respective instruments.
In a recent review of Soulgrass for All About Jazz, Senior Editor John Kelman wrote: “The real surprise of the set was banjoist Ryan Cavanaugh. At 27 he may be a new name to most, but that won’t last long, as he’s poised to parallel B?©la Fleck’s legitimizing of the banjo in contemporary jazz.” Cavanaugh recently completed recording on the next Soulgrass album, which also features Sam Bush, B?©la Fleck, and Victor Wooten.
Cavanaugh’s bluegrass chops are every bit as impressive as his jazz playing. He grew up in North Carolina playing traditional bluegrass banjo, studying Scruggs, Keith, Trischka, and Fleck, and becoming an innovator in his own right early on. With incredible speed and improvisational freedom, Cavanaugh won the prestigious MerleFest and RockyGrass banjo competitions. Cavanaugh’s original bluegrass tunes are unique in that they might incorporate odd time signatures, North Indian Classical elements, Rock riffs, Jazz-style improvisation, Celtic elements, Spanish chord progressions, non-conventional phrasing, and scales such as harmonic minor and diminished, which are usually not heard on the banjo. The result is an album made for any fan of innovative bluegrass and acoustic music, filled with memorable tunes and freedom of musical expression. As Cavanaugh puts it, “It’s not just a show of chops. I wrote the album from memories and inspirations and want it to take the listener on a journey.”