It’s safe to say, the four-string banjo is not one of the glamor instruments in jazz. There are a couple reasons for this:
- It’s seldom used to solo. Let’s face it—while we all talk about the importance of rhythm instruments, it’s soloists who get the majority of attention.
- Its strongest association in jazz is with clunky-sounding accompaniment in early Dixieland jazz records.
So this is the background (or prejudice?) Cynthia Sayer has to contend with. Ms. Sayer has spent many years helping to expand the repertoire of the four-string banjo. She became known to the public as the banjo player for Woody Allen’s band. She’s also has played with Dick Hyman, Milt Hinton, Bucky Pizzarelli, Odetta, George Segal, Warren Vache and Marvin Hamlisch, and has spent many years as a bandleader. Joyride is her ninth album.
Personnel on this record include Charlie Giordano, from Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, on accordion, Mauro Battisti on upright bass, and Larry Eagle on percussion. Marcus Rojas plays tuba on several cuts (“Banjo Blues ,“Move It On Over” and “Ella Miriam’s Blues”). Jon Herington plays electric guitar solos on “Move It On Over.” Sara Caswell joins on violin for “I Get Ideas.” Other musicians include Adrian Cunningham on clarinet (“The Man On the Flying Trapeze”), Randy Sandke on trumpet (“I Love Paris,” “Goody Goody”), Scott Robinson on tenor saxophone on (“Move It On Over,” “Ella Miriam’s Blues”), and Mike Weatherly on upright bass and backup vocals.
Most of the songs on Joyride are standards from the Great American Songbook. Chestnuts such as “The Man On the Flying Trapeze” and “Under the Bamboo Tree” alternate with show tunes and soundtrack numbers (“I Love Paris”, “When You Wish Upon A Star”, “Getting To Know You”). Hank William’s “Move It On Over” is included, as is Andy Statler’s rock-ish New Orleans-influenced “Ella Miriam’s Blues.” Two Sayer originals included on the CD demonstrate a wry, amusing songwriting style. In “Banjo Blues,” she shares her experience interacting with people about her unusual choice of instrument. In “You Talk Too Much,” she gives a blunt, detailed answer when asked by her boyfriend why she’s breaking up with him.
Using a flatpick, Sayer alternates an energetic rhythmic/tremolo style with single-note soloing. Her strumming is perhaps most impressive. It’s not an accident that the banjo disappeared from jazz with the advent of the swing era. The natural harshness of the instrument makes it difficult to play with enough subtlety to blend with the more sophisticated sound that evolved in the ’30s. But Sayer is able to combine a driving, dynamic framework with a nuance that allows the melody to shine through. Her soloing combines well-placed chords and tremolo with melodic single notes. Giordano’s solos, as well, combine skill and a great sense of timing. The accordion and banjo as primary solo instruments makes for an interesting combination, the sustained quality of the accordion contrasting with the percussive style of the banjo.
The ensemble shows its skill in “Ella Miriam’s Blues.” Giordano’s zydeco-influenced accordion interacts skillfully with the rhythm section during his solo. Sayer follows with an energetic break of her own. Other instruments drop off while tenor sax, tuba, and drum play off each other. The accordion first, and then the other instruments, join back in for the final set of choruses.
Sayer also does the singing, and she clearly takes this aspect more seriously than most instrumentalists who double on vocals. She doesn’t demonstrate a wide vocal range (though, to be fair, these songs don’t call for it). Her voice has a very warm quality, and she stretches and bends her phrasing in interpreting the lyrics (she may go a bit overboard in that area).
There aren’t many esoteric chord changes or re-harmonizations on this CD. While Joyride stretches the boundaries of the four-string banjo, it is adventurous only in the sense that the banjo repertoire is traditionally limited. That isn’t a criticism—I thoroughly enjoyed this record. Joyride is an accessible, fun album that I would recommend to jazz fans and non-jazz fans alike.