Buddy Wachter

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The experience of banjoist Buddy Wachter performing live is a jaw-dropper; identifying him as to genre is confounding. He descends from a line of banjo players who use the instrument to express sheer…
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The experience of banjoist Buddy Wachter performing live is a jaw-dropper; identifying him as to genre is confounding. He descends from a line of banjo players who use the instrument to express sheer virtuosity in the face of complex music, much the way a mountain climber arrives at the foot of a treacherous peak packing his assortment of ropes and special climbing tools. Wachter is not a bluegrass banjo player, and although he can perform pieces by Beethoven on the banjo with an ease that would make a listener think the works were originally composed for this instrument, he is not a strictly classical player. He is more the type of player who will move through music from a half-dozen distinct genres, making it all seem like part of a single style that would best be described as banjo playing, or to be technically specific, plectrum banjo playing. Since Wachter's plectrum-packing idols such as Eddie Peabody and Harry Reser tend to be classified as jazz banjoists, then perhaps Wachter won't be too seriously miffed being included in their ranks. Certainly these sorts of players display some of the important traits of jazz, such as the ability to interpret music from other genres and make a personal statement from it. Listeners are expected to pay attention to this kind of music, not put it in the background at a weenie roast. On the other hand, if a jazz musician is a person who plays a theme, then follows it up with a lot of weird, unconnected noodling and whose discography is some kind of vision quest toward the ultimate in weirdness, then that isn't Buddy Wachter at all.

He was born Andrew John Wachter and had already learned the mandolin by the time he was nine. He switched to banjo and by 15 he was already well-known for his skill on the instrument. The aforementioned banjoists from previous generations were influential, but so was hot jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt. Wachter got on a Baltimore television show with a few other famous banjoists at 16, and the flashy playing from one so young and green came to the attention of the Vega banjo company. With the help of this manufacturer of superior vintage instruments, Wachter was given the opportunity to perform at the Hollywood Bowl with none other than the legendary Peabody. The next year, Wachter joined the easy listening-orientated Fred Waring Orchestra, beginning an on-the-road professional career almost directly after his high school graduation. It would turn out to be a nearly three-year stint and some half a million road miles by his estimation. He returned to Baltimore with the notion of trying something different, and began to study chemistry at the University of Maryland. He formed a duet with pianist Ray Nelson and the two developed a strong following in the Baltimore area. Happening upon a Wachter performance by chance one night in Baltimore, German television producer Klaus Peter Dencker was blown away by both his technique and intensity, and this contact led to the banjoist's premier shot at recording, entitled Banjo Special, and well-promoted at least in Germany with a connected television special on the Saarlaendischer Rundfunk. Years of performing and teaching workshops followed, including 26 European tours and appearances with Arthur Fiedler, Richard Heyman, Eric Kunzel, Benny Goodman, Ferrante & Teicher, Teddy Wilson, Paul LaValle, Max Morath, Bob Hope, the Count Basie All-Stars, and Béla Fleck. He made his Carnegie Hall debut in 1992 with Skitch Henderson and the New York Pops. Wachter's career advice to musicians, incidentally, rings the same as the punch line to the old joke about that venerable performing institution, in which the lost musician who asks how he can get to Carnegie Hall is told to practice. Plenty of the latter would be a requirement to come anywhere near the ability of Wachter, who is a master at not only Beethoven, but jazz, ragtime, and a variety of folk styles. Appearing as a soloist with symphony orchestras remained his specialty through the '90s and early 21st century. He worked in this capacity throughout the United States and abroad, such as a performance with the National Orchestra of Venezuela. Even more travel comes with his position as a musical ambassador for the U.S. Department of State, which he held for more than a decade beginning in 1991. In 2000, he undertook a three-month State Department tour of Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, U.A.E., Pakistan, Bahrain, Kuwait, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and India. Similar to several other successful plectrum banjo players, such as Don Van Palta, Wachter maintains an active website and offers a series of instructional recordings and videos. He has not been particularly well-represented on recordings, however. In 1994, he appeared as a guest artist on the Tony Trischka production World Turning, in which a great variety of banjo styles are presented, meaning Wachter must have felt right at home.