What happens when a flat-picking guitar pro with a love of bluegrass teams up with a classically trained violinist who is versed in jazz and a drummer whose background runs to hip-hop and rock?
A musical gumbo? A novel new sound? A train wreck?
If you’ve followed the music of the Asheville, N.C.-based Jon Stickley Trio, either through their three inventive recordings — the newest of which, “Maybe Believe,” was released last week — or via frequent Lexington performances over the past year, you’ll know that last option doesn’t compute. Improvisation abounds in their music, but the players have produced a learned, cohesive and stylistically daring acoustic sound all their own.
“What we wanted to do was just make sure everyone’s strengths were highlighted,” said Stickley, who brings his band back to the region for a Saturday performance at The Moonshiners Ball. “Everyone has these different strengths, so we just started trying to combine them the best that we could.
“I have been pretty deeply involved in the bluegrass picking community for the past 15 years or so. It wasn’t until the band formed four years ago that we settled on this instrumentation of fiddle, guitar and drums. So it wasn’t until I started coming up with original material that we started crossing some of the genre lines and incorporating all of the different music that we like into our original compositions.”
Perhaps the most immediate distinction about the trio isn’t any of those strengths, but rather what’s missing from the band’s sound: bass.
“It’s kind of weird. We started out with a bass. The lineup was guitar, violin and bass. Kind of randomly on a gig, we switched the bass player out. Well, basically the bass player couldn’t make it, so we had a drummer friend of mine fill in. We did the first gig — drummer, violin and guitar — and really loved it.
“One of the things we noticed was how not having a bass freed me and the violinist (Lyndsay Pruett) up to experiment a little more and go where we needed to go without confusing the bass player or to have the bass player hold us back in any way. Over time, we figured out how to use octave pedals on our pedal boards and bass amps to basically create a bass tone through our instruments. It’s always very challenging and interesting as far as our experience goes. But it wasn’t even really planned. It just kind of happened randomly, and we ran with it.”
Produced by Dave King, drummer for The Bad Plus, “Maybe Believe” contains elements of swing in “The Price of Being Nice” that play to Pruett’s strengths, and a percussive romp that brews gradually during “Mt. Sandia Swing” thanks to drummer Patrick Armitage. But the album’s most telling track is an update of the furiously paced “Birdland Breakdown,” a tune that mandolinist John Reischman composed and recorded with the Tony Rice Unit in 1981. The Stickley Trio’s interpretation affirms that bluegrass might be among its long lost of influences, but so is the more progressive-minded new grass music — a sound equally rooted in jazz — pioneered by innovators including Rice, David Grisman and Bela Fleck during the late 1970s and early ’80s.
“It was really a pretty natural thing to follow,” Stickley said. “In a lot of ways, in my mind, we were just carrying on the tradition of doing what they were: mixing genres and incorporating elements of different styles of music into a kind of bluegrass box. We’re just trying to have fun and play the music that we love.
“A lot of the ideas that are original about our group are things that popped out during late nights around the jam circle, at the campfires at the festivals. If what we do falls into a certain place within the history of the progression of the art form, then I’m cool with that, too.”