High Desert Bluegrass Sessions
Instrumentals by Pat Cloud, David Naiditch, Eric Uglum,
Christian Ward, and Austin Ward
I’m David Naiditch, the harmonica player on this CD. I decided to produce the \"High Desert Bluegrass Sessions\" after reconnecting with my old friend, banjo player Pat Cloud. Pat returned to Los Angeles after spending years in faraway places like Japan and Bishop, California. Pat’s bluegrass playing was more innovative and exciting than ever, yet he had never recorded any bluegrass CDs. The more I heard Pat play, the more I realized that it would be a crime against humanity if he never recorded. Fortunately for everyone, Pat agreed to make this CD.
“There are banjo players, and then there is Pat Cloud.” I’ve heard this general refrain many times. Indeed, Pat is a singular anomaly—an unlikely cross between Earl Scruggs and Joe Pass. Pat began his music career learning the style of Earl Scruggs. Earl’s main innovation was his right-hand fingerpicking technique, which sounded so different from the old-timey frailing and clawhammer style of playing. After mastering this right-hand technique, Pat concentrated on his left hand. Pat’s playing is now driven by his left hand. The fingers on his right hand each move independently to support the melody lines created by his left hand. For this, Pat deserves a left-handed compliment. When Pat takes a break, one sees what appears to be a spider crawling all over the neck, not the typical chord structures with an outstretched finger or two. Fingering positions are continually morphing into new shapes that seem to defy all analysis. Ringing open strings are somehow added to the mix. This across-string (“arpa”) technique allows complex melody lines to be played with a flowing sound, which is far different from single-string playing or playing driven by right-hand patterns. And most remarkable, Pat’s playing is rarely worked out in advance; rather, it is highly improvised. He seems to never run out of ideas. With each take, I never knew what Pat was going to come up with, but it was always brilliant. This style of playing is exceedingly difficult, yet Pat does his utmost to teach it to those who are interested. Pat already has an instruction manual, \"Key to Five-String Banjo,\" published by Mel Bay. Another manual is on its way. Instructional materials, videos, and audios are also available on Pat’s website, www.patcloud.com.
As Pat was taking bluegrass melodic playing to new heights, he also got interested in jazz. He studied jazz theory and took lessons from jazz greats like Joe Pass. In time, Pat mastered jazz improvisation on the five-string banjo and recorded with jazz musicians such as Harry Orlove and John Carlini. Pat also learned to play tenor banjo with Dixieland bands performing at Disneyland, both in Anaheim and Tokyo.
In addition to the banjo, Pat plays the banjola—a five-string banjo neck attached to a pear-shaped wooden body. (Gold Tone offers a Pat Cloud banjola model.) This beautiful sounding instrument can be heard in the introduction to \"Lonesome Moonlight Waltz.\" If you enjoy the banjola’s unique sound, you’ll be happy to know that Pat is planning to record an entire album of jazz banjola.
Other musicians on this CD include Eric Uglum and his sons, Christian Ward and Austin Ward. As their latest CD, \"The Old Road to Jerusalem,\" amply demonstrates, they are an extraordinarily talented bluegrass band. At only16, Christian Ward is well on his way to becoming one of the greatest fiddlers of all time. He has already developed his own subtle and sophisticated style of playing—full of swing, surprise double stops, and creative melody lines that are improvised on the spot.
At 18, Austin Ward is already a consummate bassist with great timing and tone. He effortlessly glides across the strings, producing a smooth yet swinging feel that keeps the band together. I’ve seen Austin joining jams at various bluegrass festivals, and as soon as he does, the rhythm becomes tight, and everyone’s playing improves.
Eric Uglum has been in many topnotch bluegrass bands, such as Weary Hearts, New Wine, Copperline, and Lost Highway, and has recorded with bluegrass artists such as Alison Krauss, Ralph Stanley, James King, Ron Block, Stuart Duncan, Rob Ickes, The Cherryholmes, and Sean and Sara Watkins. Although Eric is a fine singer and mandolin player, on this CD he excels as a guitarist. Eric’s guitar playing is understated and lyrical. He has superb tone, uncanny timing, and impeccable taste. Each note is meaningful and perfectly placed. Visit the Uglum family and studio website at www.ericuglum.com.
I play chromatic harmonica on this CD. I use a Hohner CX-12 in the key of C. The harmonica isn’t commonly used in bluegrass, and the chromatic harmonica is very rare. Bluegrass players typically use diatonic harmonicas that are played “cross-harp” to give a raw, bluesy sound. In contrast, the chromatic, when played properly, can produce a pure, sweet sound. I often attempt to emulate the tone of a fiddle. Unlike diatonic players, who use different harmonicas for each key, I typically use one harmonica—a C chromatic—regardless of the key being played. Unlike the diatonic, the chromatic harmonica contains all the notes, including all sharps and flats. Therefore, one does not need to “bend” the reeds to get missing notes. The trick is a slide button that, when pressed in, provides the sharps and flats. I enjoy having the freedom to play all the notes I hear other bluegrass musicians play, including a few jazzy notes inspired by Pat’s playing.
I played blues harmonica for many years, even taking lessons when I was a kid, from the great Sonny Terry. Eventually, however, I wanted to play other types of music, such as bluegrass, country swing, and gypsy jazz. The diatonic harmonica that had served me so well for blues seemed inadequate, so I switched to the chromatic harmonica. The chromatic is a difficult instrument, so I signed up for group lessons from the classical harmonica player, Cham-Ber Huang. Although I had no intention of playing classical music, I wanted to learn techniques for playing—for instance, vibratos and double stops, which can be heard on this CD.
As my playing improved, I gained confidence and joined jams with better and better players. I realize that bluegrass musicians often cringe when they see a harmonica player saunter over to their jam. They find them as annoying as the mosquitoes that come out to feast. Several tricks have been developed over the years to discourage the would-be participant, including selecting unusual keys, such as E, F, and Bb. Many diatonic harmonica players aren’t armed with harmonicas that can handle these keys. But in the unlikely event that they can, the ever-resourceful bluegrass musician can always select even more exotic keys, such as Eb and Db. As a last resort, the harmonicist can be frightened away by being handed sheet music.
I must admit that harmonica players who show up at bluegrass events often can’t play the melodies. They also tend to play too loud when others are taking their breaks. I’ve tried to avoid these problems by learning the leads to many bluegrass tunes and by playing softly, if at all, when it isn’t my turn to play. Once I’m given a chance to take a few breaks, even bluegrass purists often enjoy my playing.
This CD was produced at Eric Uglum’s New Wine Sound Studio, located in the high desert of Apple Valley. To get to Eric’s studio from Los Angeles, Pat Cloud and I negotiated the steep Cajon Pass and the harsh, barren desert, braving the searing heat, lacerating windstorms, torrential rains, and swarms of Jurassic-sized blood-sucking insects (or were they bats?). But the risk of painful death was well worth it. Not only is Eric’s studio state-of-the-art, but Eric is a superb recording engineer. His fingers gracefully dance across the complex console of levers, switches, and buttons as he miraculously blends each instrument into a harmonious whole. As a first-class musician, Eric immediately hears when anyone is out of key, off tempo, or loses “the groove.” The location of Eric’s studio gave birth to the title of this CD, the High Desert Bluegrass Sessions. I hope you enjoy listening to this CD as much as I enjoyed recording with these wonderful musicians.
David Naiditch, July 2008