In an era of short-term profit taking, quarterly board reviews, and corporate mergers, the low level of artistic exploration and risk taking is clear but worrisome. Media moguls fill stages and recording studios with known musicians, who perform overused standards, offering both the public and the promoters safe, predigested "value-meals". Therefore, I was more than curious when fiddler Matt Glaser told me that he and a group of established jazz, bluegrass, and klezmer musicians had been experimenting with new music. Furthermore - they would be appearing at the Bottom Line in NYC on July 23, with no recording contract or other signs of financial backing.

They call themselves Wayfaring Strangers. But for those who follow modern and traditional acoustic music, many of these musicians are familiar names. The project is the brainchild (or rather soul-child) of Matt Glaser who plays jazz, bluegrass, and old-time fiddle. Glaser also presides over the strings department at the Berklee College of Music in Boston.

"Recently, I was quite sick," says Glaser, "and it occurred to me that I should get off my duff and try and make whatever music was in me come out. This project brings together most of the musical and life threads that I could find in myself". The idea was to explore the deeper and darker sides of American folk music, drawing from several traditions. There have been many attempts to fuse jazz and bluegrass, but most focused more on virtuoso playing and less on the emotional and spiritual content. Growing up in New York City, Jewish music seemed as American to Glaser as Billie Holiday and Bill Monroe. This project started out as a form of tribute to Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass - who died a year ago. In order to realize his vision, Glaser called upon a particular vocalist. "Many many years ago," says Glaser, "I was playing a club called The Eagles and Lucy Kaplansky came in and sang Wayfaring Stranger and I flipped out completely (she was so amazing). I almost lost control over certain parts of my body and I knew there that I would want to try and have a band with her".

Lucy Kaplansky's performance of "Wayfaring Stranger", an old American folk song, was riveting. Andy Statman began with free clarinet improvisation that possessed a distinct Jewish cry, and then gave way to the singer:

I am a poor wayfaring stranger,
traveling through this world of woe.
But there's no sickness, toil, or danger
in the bright world to which I go.
 

Manipulating the long notes in this slow song, Kaplansky's multi-colored voice revealed Middle Eastern qualities in the form of shakes, trills, and slides. Her touch of the orient led to a beautiful piano solo by Bruce Barth.

"Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child" was a great example of a standard, reworked from all angles to take advantage of the strengths of the individual musicians, and to serve as a vehicle for Glaser's vision of a phantasmagorical connection between a variety of styles. The tune was re-harmonized and the time signature of the first section was changed from 4/4 to 3/4. Its structure was expanded to include Chassidic melodies on the clarinet, as well as an old Appalachian fiddle tune. Throughout the concert, the widely changing dynamics, counterpoint, and interplay between the musicians added an element of chamber music to the sound. Bill Monroe's "Memories of You" included haunting vocal harmonies and a klezmer tune that amused the audience but fit the chord changes perfectly. The transitions between the various styles were done so fluidly you could absorb this whole suite as one organic piece. Instantly comprehending the relationships between the shifting styles, pianist Bruce Barth provided the glue that held the music together. Barth, who gave the music its deepest sense of jazz, was unfortunately relegated to the far end of the stage, hidden behind one of the building's columns.

Jennifer Kimball, a Boston-based folk singer, traded verses and harmonized beautifully with Kaplansky throughout the evening. But her most intense moments were during a song she had written about her recently departed grandfather who, at the age of 97, was ready to die. Accompanying herself on a ukulele with a solemn drone, Kimball reached inside and drew from the deepest of her experiences - her tender voice caressing her grandfather, understanding his departure and yet holding on.

Regarded by many to be the founder of the modern banjo, Tony Trischka is a jaw-dropping player with incredible technique and a rich vocabulary of jazz, bluegrass, and other genres. But it's Trischka's expressiveness and subtle touch that helped create an ensemble who's total effect was greater than the sum of its (considerable) individuals. Tony did get a chance to pick up a storm on the Appalachian tune "June Apple". John McGann (guitar and mandolin) and Jim Whitney (bass) kept the engines running in the boiler room and fueled the band throughout the evening, surfacing for an occasional solo.

"June Apple" was one of the tunes that left many mandolin players in the audience ready to run home and bash their instruments against their heads. Andy Statman, a deeply religious Jew, is well known for his clarinet work in klezmer and Chassidic music. He is also a brilliant mandolin player. Statman burst into fast, angular mandolin solos, leaving texture playing to the capable hands of his fellow musicians. The crowd went wild. Leaning hard into the tiny wooden instrument, he shed all constraints of form, tempo, and meter. Statman always referred to the essence of the music but traveled deep into space, not unlike Ornette Coleman, only to return in time to join his (relieved) friends on stage.

No less amazing than Statman's performance, was the revelation (I found that out during a later conversation) that the band had rehearsed a total of one hour prior to the concert. Glaser knew, based on everyone's schedule, that it would be impossible to have the music in a finished state by the time of the gig. "I thought we would have to get a gig in order to get the music together on any level," says Glaser. "There were no charts written out. The girls wrote down the words and there were a couple of chords jotted down. But Andy is into keeping things fluid and spontaneous so things can go in a variety of ways". Glaser did an admirable job at keeping the program moving on stage but ultimately the music took on a life of it's own.

Still, there is nothing incidental about the Wayfaring Strangers. "This band is very much about the individuals," says Glaser. "It's not just an arbitrary attempt to throw together certain musicians. I've played with all these musicians and I felt a commonality between them". "There is some commonality between these ethnic styles of music too," continues Glaser. "Commonality on a musical level related to groove, improvisation, and emotional investment in the music". This project is not so much a case of self-conscious eclecticism, as a natural reflection of being a musician in multi-cultural urban America.

The Wayfaring Strangers will be appearing again at the Bottom Line in New York City on October 30th. Beyond that there will be some concerts in the spring and possibly a CD ..... don't miss them!

by Avi Ziv


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