"If there's one thing the banjo needs, it's more notes played on it."
That tongue-in-cheek statement comes from Deadly Gentlemen banjo player Greg Liszt, who, in addition to having a Ph.D. in molecular biology from MIT on his wall (and an awesomely musical last name), came up with a way to cram a fourth finger into the normally three-finger-roll world of banjo-ing.
Liszt had already been three-finger rolling, Bela Fleck/Newgrass-style, for years before deciding to shake things up. But adding a fourth digit required extensive digital reprogramming.
"It was pretty much starting from scratch," Liszt said, "but it opened up a whole bunch of new picking patterns and possibilities that are difficult to do with three fingers, but they become really natural and fluid to do with four."
The innovation makes surface-level sense to non-banjo players: if you can use a fourth finger with a pick, why wouldn't you? It's a nuclear option — there if Liszt needs it — but not always in play.
"One of the nice things about the banjo is that it sounds great when it is syncopated," Liszt said. "Those multiples of three against four-beat measures sound really good. So I've retained a lot of that."
The Deadly Gentlemen, Liszt's Boston-based band, tours frequently. The talented, young group of players — guitarist Stash Wyslouch (who digs heavy metal), mandolin player Dominick Leslie (only 23!), fiddler Mike Barnett and bassist Sam Grisman (son of mandolinist David Grisman) — is less bluegrass jam session (they don't always blow and blow) and more song-circle. Roll Me Tumble Me, their third album and first for Rounder Records, came out on July 9. Some songs are reworked versions of older tunes, some of which Liszt performed with his former band Crooked Still. Then there are songs from the original Deadly Gentlemen release that were formerly done in a rap/spoken-word style.
"We actually finished the whole album and then brought it to Rounder, and they decided they liked it, came to see us play and then got involved with releasing it," Liszt said. "When the band started, I had written all these songs that were basically rap songs: very, very dense rhythmic rhymes, and they didn't really need melodies because they had so many words. And I just sort of noticed that rapping went really well with banjo-playing, because they're both very rhythmic and percussive, and the notes have very little sustain, and there are a lot of similarities between the rhythms of the words and the rhythms that the banjo plays. That was the original impetus."
The band's lineup changed over the years, and the spoken-word thing largely disappeared. "There are a lot of really good singers in the band now," Liszt said, "so we'll do a lot of other stuff vocally. We do revisit the banjo-rap material from time to time, but now we have a lot of songs that are more melodic vocally, so they put the banjo-rap stuff in a context, not massively overkill like it used to be."
During the last two years of graduate school, he said, Crooked Still started touring nationally, and "it became incredibly difficult to keep both things going simultaneously, to log enough hours in the lab to get my research done and also play all the gigs that were popping up." He pulled it off long enough to nab the degree, but with more and more Crooked Still gigs booked, he knew it wasn't sustainable.
"There are some things I took from the Ph.D. training," Liszt said, "like the endless experimentation of it all. I feel like the Deadly Gentlemen has been an experimental band on some level. We're always trying new things and making discoveries, moving in the directions that are working and moving away from the ones that aren't."
Another big life event sealed the deal: In 2006, shortly after finishing school, Liszt landed a gig with Bruce Springsteen, who needed a banjo player for his Seeger Songs tour and Live in Dublin DVD and CD. "There was no returning to science at that point," Liszt said.
Liszt was already a Springsteen fan. "They tried out a lot of other banjo players for that gig, but I think I was the biggest Bruce-head," he said. "No banjo player ever really expects something like that to happen. Maybe guitar players dream about stuff like that. But banjo players, you know, it's just understood that nothing that epic would ever happen to you. Then, somehow, it did."
The Deadly Gentlemen play at Real Art Ways during Creative Cocktail Hour on Sept. 19. They just wrapped a long summer tour and will head straight into fall with more dates, including an Oct. 13 New Haven show honoring the new Yale University president, Peter Salovey. (Before heading to MIT, Liszt earned an undergraduate degree from Yale.)
"[Salovey] used to play in a bluegrass band with me back in college," Liszt said.
The Deadly Gentlemen
Sept. 19, 6-10 p.m. during Creative Cocktail Hour, $5-$10, Real Art Ways, 56 Arbor St., Hartford, (860) 232-1006, realartways.org