David and Nathan Gusakov, father and son, bring their banjo-fiddle duo to Adamant Community Club Saturday, May 18, at 7:30 p.m. for what promises to be an evening of unexpected music played on traditional instruments.
Performing as Last Train To Zinkov, David on fiddle and Nathan playing clawhammer banjo give a twist to the sound and type of music you’d expect to hear from banjo and fiddle. The duo’s music draws from Appalachian old-time, Gypsy jazz, classical, and the klezmer of their family’s Eastern European roots. What emanates from their instruments are beautiful melodies and the realization that one does not have to put a performer in a box based on the instrument they are playing.
David Gusakov, from Bristol, has lived in Vermont for 46 years. In that time he has performed with the Vermont Symphony Orchestra and the bluegrass-swing band Pine Island. In the intervening four-plus decades he has been a full-time musician, playing with such groups as the Mid-nite Plowboys, Redwing, Swing Shift, Will Patton, and Swing Noire.
Nathan Gusakov lives in nearby Lincoln. He’s self-taught on the banjo and his first album of original music, “Running Clear,” received praise for its “stellar clawhammer-style banjo and rich lyricism” from Jamie Masefield of the Jazz Mandolin Project.
Nathan Gusakov spoke with the Rutland Herald recently: “When we started playing together in earnest a few years ago, it was sort of like meeting my dad for the first time. Immediately we both felt like we’d found a close collaborator and kindred creative spirit, it was so powerful!”
The Gusakov duo has taken the name The Last Train to Zinkov, which refers to the town in Ukraine where their family originated and from where in the 1920s a grandfather escaped Jewish persecution, coming to America. This ethno-musical connection is what makes “Regeneration,” the duo’s first album, and their live concerts so interesting.
On the CD “Regeneration,” and on stage as well, one hears sounds that point to old-time music with traditional tunes like “Barlow Knife,” “Colored Aristocracy” and “The Cuckoo.” These are tunes that have been played in Appalachia for a very long time.
While holding to the old-time style with Nathan Gusakov’s bubbly banjo setting the pace, David Gusakov’s fiddle sets an altogether different tone. The fiddle here is much more uptown than cabin-centric. The two instruments rarely interact in tandem where both are playing melody together in the usual old-time style. Here, David Gusakov weaves around the melody.
This is what makes this duo so interesting. Those who enjoy old-time music have been programed to hear banjo and fiddle in a specific way without harmony. With the Gusakovs there’s a different take. Nathan plays a traditional tune and David plays around the melody with harmony parts. Rarely do the two play the melody together.
On “Regeneration” we hear the clawhammer banjo style, but the fiddle continually veers off into classical, Gypsy jazz and Eastern European motifs. The duo’s music goes to places that few musicians playing these instruments travel. While old-time is generally thought of as upbeat and happy music, the duo has written several melodies that are quite sad. There are more minor-key tunes than is usual for this instrumentation.
For those who developed the style of fiddle and banjo that became Appalachian music, which we now call old-time, the road was paved in music with origins in Scotland and Ireland, with some English influence. The road that leads to Last Train to Zinkov and its recording is paved with sounds from the Shtetls (small villages) of Eastern Europe and the turmoil of emigration pressures throughout those lands.
What the Gusakovs bring to a concert is an ability to translate the sadness of the immigrant experience, even two generations beyond leaving the village of Zinkov, to an American aesthetic through old-time music.