Banjo Nickaru and Western Scooches sounds about like what you’d expect a group composed of a jazz vocalist, a banjo player, a Broadway dancer, and a percussionist with a doctorate would sound like. Well, maybe with a little calypso thrown in.
Their combination of sounds isn’t likely to seem familiar to even roots music aficionados despite the fact their catalog is mostly made up of standards such as “You Are My Sunshine” and 20’s and 30’s tunes like “Sweet Georgia Brown.” I asked band members Nick Russo, Betina Hershey and Dr. David Pleasant just how they arrived at some of their takes on these songs.
“From Gullah-Geechee [we get] the whole idea of community culture and the idea of accompaniment and the whole idea of democracy even,” Pleasant, the percussionist, said. “Typically it’s set up top to bottom. The lyric and then the harmony and then the rhythm and that’s something that’s kind of set in a certain framework like a house, but in Gullah-Geechee culture, all those things always mix and collapse in on each other. One time a tree sways in the wind, one time a bird flies by, another time it rains, but that’s all part of something bigger.”
Hershey, the lead vocalist and newcomer to the group as a result of her marriage to Russo, explained her first reaction to the band’s style.
“Woah! What is happening? This is really strange” Hershey said, just as animated as if it were the first time she heard a jazz standard performed on a banjo while Pleasant banged out one of his show-stopping drum solos on the other side of the stage. She now feels much more at home in what she first saw as chaos.
“At first it was I’m just gonna do my thing, and you guys go crazy around me,” Hershey said. “I kind of still do that, but now I really enjoy it.”
Russo, the banjo player and leader of this version of the band, explained that their sound was not so much an intentional one but the organic result of personal relationships. Russo plays in both Pleasant’s and jazz vocalist Miles Griffith’s bands, and he and Griffith attended college together.
“We’re just brothers from mothers,” Russo said. “My kids call them uncle. I play with those gentlemen so often we just play the way we play.”
Pleasant agreed that their sound is a unique one, but at the same time said he considered it more traditional than a so-called ‘traditional’ interpretation of the songs.
“Over time, things kind of get straightened out to either be palatable or for consumers, but in the early days, that music was coming from exactly that kind of place,” Pleasant said, referencing the often experimental nature of jazz and its related genres. “You’re dealing with a music that has that kind of pressure and volatility on in every second, so to freeze it and act like it’s something other than that is to do something strange. So we just don’t do that.”