Mandolin player John Reischman has umpteen years of experience playing, recording and teaching bluegrass on the West Coast —and he never plays one note out of place.
But when I asked him about his upcoming show at the Bingen Theater, he kind of laughed.
“Oh, is that how you guys say it,” Reischman said of the pronunciation of the town just over the bridge from us.
“OK, that’s good to know. I was saying “Bing-gen” (laughs).
[Sources tell me this is a German pronunciation. I learn something every day.]
The last time this five-piece outfit played in Hood River was 2011, which was just on the heels of the band’s release “Vintage and Unique.” Since then, Reischman and the Jaybirds have been steadily touring and plugging away, with the same lineup that, by the way, has been together for 14 years.
“Well, when I put the band together, I drew upon people that I knew from California — where I’m from — and people who I’ve met since I moved up north to 20 years ago to Vancouver, B.C. I found things about their musicianship that I value and the chemistry is really good. It’s really a miracle we’ve been together this long,” Reischman said.
Reischman recalled a key event that he believes, even today, helps the band continue touring, even in today’s tough economy.
“The band started right around when the movie ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou,’ came out, and I think that kind of automatically helped us get going. At some of the earlier shows people showed up not because they knew us, but because bluegrass was popular again, so that helped and I think there’s still an interest. Today, you see a good crossover of bluegrass and bluegrass instruments in contemporary and popular music, so I think it’s going good,” Reischman said.
The other components of the longevity seem to be the choice of material and the compatibility of the musicians.
“We don’t strictly play for bluegrass clubs and festivals, we find it’s really nice to be part of a subscription series at a performance arts center where they’ll have flamenco, a string quartet, some world music, and then they’ll have us. I think we go over really well in that context.”
The Jaybirds maintain aspects of traditional bluegrass in their live shows with the use of one microphone for singing, but they’ve added some high-tech ideas along the way to update the sound.
“We do sing into one microphone but everyone has their own on-instrument microphone, and they’re wireless. So we have the look of a single mic style, but the sound is fuller than you would ever get with just one microphone, Reischman said.
“We can still move around, and not be encumbered by cables or mic stands, so that’s great to have. I personally like it because my mandolin gets a nice full, dark sound. When we solo, we step to the center mic, mainly as a visual cue, but that center mic will also pick up a bit of each instrument, so for me it brightens up the sound on my mandolin, for an even better sound. And they’re good quality mics, they’re the kind that stage actors use.”
Even with the Jaybirds’ touring schedule and other studio demands, Reischman found time to complete a new solo project featuring his band and many special guest players.
“The album is called “Walk Along John,” because there’s an old time fiddle tune called “Walk Along John to Kansas,” that I recorded, and it seemed like a good title. The Jaybirds played on one full track, and I used all of them in different pairings, and that’s been exciting. I had Bruce Molesky, the great old-time fiddler play, Tony Trishka came in and played banjo for me and Chris Thile came in and played mandolin on a tune with me.”
The project also featured Annie Staninec, a fiddle player who currently plays with Kathy Kallick, a singer who Reischman spent time in a band with.
“I joined the Good Ol Persons — a band that Kathy was the leader of in 1978, and it was great, because it was a really wonderful band with talented musicians. Paul Shelasky, was in the band, he was a great swing fiddler and I was a fan of that swing music, I still am. I knew Sally VanMeter, who played dobro in the band, from our days in Chico, Calif.
But the main thing that Reischman enjoyed from that time was the ability to play original bluegrass music, something that continues with the Jaybirds today.
“Being in a band with such a great songwriter made me appreciate original songs, and that has held over to the Jaybirds, where I do some co-writing. I’m more of a melody guy than a lyric guy, and I’ve collaborated with our bassist Trisha Gagnon, along with guitarist Jim Nunally, who both are great writers. Nick Hornbuckle (banjo) writes great instrumentals, and Greg Spatz (fiddle) has written a few fine tunes. I write lots of instrumentals, so the focus on original material has carried over,” Reischman said.
The connections Reischman made in the Good Ol’ Persons seem to carry on with the Jaybirds — both bands have unique styles that appeal to a wide audience.
“The material is good and what we have is multi-dimensional sound, which is not a full-on bluegrass sound. We mix in gentler and more folky tunes, and Trisha is a wonderful lead singer with a unique rich voice. Jim has the traditional bluegrass voice, and it’s nice for me to have these contrasting lead vocalists. We put some gospel quartet harmonies into some of the songs and the pacing varies. It’s called John Reischman and the Jaybirds, but it’s not just me with a backup band. Everyone gets their spot. Sometimes, we’re funny, too,” Reischman said.
But, still, bluegrass wouldn’t be bluegrass without specific instruments. Would Bill Monroe be Bill Monroe without his famous one-and-only mandolin?
“I remember Charles Sawtelle, who played guitar for Hot Rize, was talking about that, he said if you went to see Bill Monroe and he didn’t have his old F-5 mandolin, he’d feel kind of ripped-off. So it’s part of the music, these specific instruments, belonging to these well-known artists.”
Reischman’s instrument, as fans of his music have reminded him, is a key part to the Jaybird’s sound, too.
“I pretty much play this old Gibson F-5 from 1924, which I purchased in 1981. I have other instruments that I like quite a bit, but that’s pretty much my go-to instrument. It’s unbelievably good and responsive, and in a bluegrass band context, it just feels right.”
The Gorge has always been a favorite place for Reischman, noting that he has a brother who lived not too far from Gresham.
“I love that area, Hood River is a wonderful town. When I book the band I always try to book shows in places I like to visit and the Columbia Gorge is beautiful. Isn’t Odell nearby? That town’s got a little Mexican place that has great carnitas.”