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Cynthia Sayer

Robert Spencer By

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Time was when every self-respecting jazz band had a banjoist. The legendary Johnny St. Cyr did duty in both Jelly Roll Morton's Red Hot Peppers and Louis Armstrong's Hot Five, and he was just the preeminent member of a hearty and considerable band. Listen to the banjo breaks on those great early sides, and you get a glimpse into the folk roots of this music—its common roots with modern folk and rock. But on the jazz side of the street, banjo aficionados are hard pressed to find St. Cyr's musical heirs. Hard-pressed, that is, until the arrival on the scene of Cynthia Sayer, the extraordinary banjoist and singer.

Alas, Jelly Roll and Satch are long gone, and their heirs aren't working with banjos (although after his recent bagpipe excursions, I'm still hoping Anthony Braxton will give Cynthia a call). So what's a jazz banjo player to do?

Just about everything, in fact. Look for Cynthia Sayer, and you're likely to see her, banjo in hand, standing next to some of the leading talents in "traditional" jazz, plus not a few luminaries in other fields: Woody Allen, Dick Hyman, Milt Hinton, Bill Cosby, George Segal, Odetta, Marvin Hamlisch, Bucky Pizzarelli, Kenny Davern, Bob Wilber, Doc Cheatham, Warren Vache and Ken Peplowski. She plays piano, too, and sings with Woody Allen's New Orleans Jazz Band—she even appears in Wild Man Blues, the Woody Allen's film documentary of his European concert tour. Allen must admire her work: she has worked on his Purple Rose Of Cairo and Bullets Over Broadway, as well as on other films, including Sophie's Choice.

Sayer also plays banjo with the New York Philharmonic, of all people, during their performances of George Gershwin's jazz-inflected Rhapsody In Blue. She's even appeared at the White House.

And why not? Even the Grey Lady has noticed Sayer: The New York Times says that "within the small society of contemporary jazz banjoists, women are even rarer. One of that very rare breed, Cynthia Sayer, plays with a plunging drive ... and her jazz-inflected singing [has] a deep sense of involvement." New York Newsday calls her "a wizard on the instrument." Venerable pianist Dick Hyman concurs: "Versatile Cynthia Sayer picks an expert banjo, strums a steady guitar, and sings with swing and charm. She is one of a kind."

Hyman is right. She is one of a kind, a daring imaginative innovator who innovates by returning forthrightly to the traditions of our forefathers, traditions that are by no means exhausted—as Cynthia Sayer herself proves time and time again.

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