Photo Credit: Mike Melnyk
John Reischman is one of the premier mandolinists of his generation. He’s a master instrumentalist capable of swinging between re-inventions of traditional old-time tunes, deconstructions from the bluegrass repertoire, and compelling original tunes, many of which have become standards. He’s also a powerful bandleader, touring his band the Jaybirds all over Canada and the United States. But most of all, he’s an understated visionary, the kind of master craftsman whose music is virtuosic without ever being flashy and who is renowned for his impeccable taste and tone as an artist. John Reischman embodies the true spirit of acoustic music in the 21st century.
A Juno–nominated and Grammy–award winning artist, John Reischman is known today for his work with his band the Jaybirds and his acclaimed solo albums, but he got his start as an original member of the Tony Rice Unit in the late 1970s. With the Tony Rice Unit, Reischman helped define the “new acoustic music” movement in bluegrass thanks to their high profile albums on Rounder Records. Building this sound, Reischman was of course influenced early on by Monroe’s mandolin playing, but also by the playing of early bluegrass mandolinists like Sam Bush, David Grisman, and jazz mandolinist Jethro Burns. Living in the Bay Area in the 80s, Reischman toured and performed with seminal bluegrass band The Good Ol’ Persons, cementing his reputation as a powerful mandolinist with an original vision for the instrument. He moved to Vancouver, British Columbia in the 1990s and formed The Jaybirds, but Reischman never stopped his musical explorations. In 1996, he won a Grammy as part of Todd Phillips’ all-star tribute album to Bill Monroe. Over the years, he’s overseen collaborations with a remarkably wide range of artists, like bluegrass singer Kathy Kallick, to guitarist Scott Nygaard, banjo wiz Tony Furtado, Chinese Music ensemble Red Chamber, Brazilian multi-instrumentalist Celso Machado, singer songwriter Susan Crowe, and more.
This kind of cross-cultural trailblazing has always been at the center of John Reischman’s music. It’s not a kind of musical fusion, but rather an extension of his curiosity to the stringed instruments and musical rhythms of other traditions. Long inspired by Latin American roots music, from Puerto Rican cuatro to Brazilian choro music, John’s been exploring this music, and forging new compositions from these inspirations, in his duo with Seattle guitarist master acoustic guitarist John Miller. The two have recorded three acclaimed albums together. Bringing together two forces in instrumental acoustic music, John Reischman and John Miller were both able to channel their music together into a truly intimate and supportive ensemble.
Though some people, including Tony Rice, questioned John’s move away from the hotbed of California bluegrass that had formed his career, John’s relocation to Vancouver, British Columbia in the 1990s ultimately led to his next big step as an artist: becoming a bandleader. Drawing from the very best bluegrass and acoustic musicians in the Pacific Northwest to form the band, Reischman led The Jaybirds on cross-country tours, five albums, and two Juno nominations. With their latest album released in 2011, John Reischman & the Jaybirds are still going strong as one of the top bluegrass ensembles. The secret to their success lies in the innovative arrangements and powerful original song writing and tune composition, but also in the mix of talents that make up the group. Fiddler Greg Spatz has a crystal-clear tone and an ability to play with blazing speed and soft subtlety. Bassist and vocalist Trisha Gagnon writes and sings beautiful original songs. Banjo player Nick Hornbuckle has a solid, original style of picking that forms the bedrock of the music, and guitarist Jim Nunally is renowned as one of the top acoustic roots guitarists and is also an in-demand record producer. Reischman ties these different talents together into an impossibly tight band that can turn on a dime and play with the kind of power and precision that is the hallmark of the original bluegrass greats.
In 2013, John Reischman released his third solo album, Walk Along John. Made up of traditional and original tunes, the album’s a celebration of Reischman’s long career, featuring guest spots from old friends like old-time fiddler Bruce Molsky, banjo genius Tony Trischka, The Punch Brothers’ Chris Thile, bluegrass guitarist Kenny Smith, and members of the Jaybirds, plus new friends from a new generation of bluegrass instrumentalists: guitarist Eli West, members of The Deadly Gentlemen, among others. Walk Along John follows in the footsteps of Reischman’s other acclaimed solo albums, like his debut, North of the Border, which was recorded for Rounder Records and was reviewed by Bluegrass Unlimited as “monumental … it establishes a remarkably high standard for mature, tasteful mandolin music”. But Walk Along John plumbs a deeper level of talent for Reischman, the result of the past decades of hard work and constant study. After 40 years of picking at the forefront of the American bluegrass tradition, it should come as no surprise that John Reischman still has a lot to say.