The Wayfaring Strangers
by Seth Rogovoy
(BOSTON, Mass., November 13, 2003) -- Matt Glaser has an unusual name for the blend of American roots music played by his group the Wayfaring Strangers. "I call it ‘Waldo music,’ after Ralph Waldo Emerson," he says from his office at Berklee College of Music, where he’s been the chair of the string department for 20 years. "He was a kind of transcendent American thinker who brought all these disparate elements together — but you don’t go into Tower Records and see a ‘Waldo’ bin."
The Wayfaring Strangers’ ‘Waldo’ music brings together disparate elements including old-time country, folk, and bluegrass — as well as just plain old-country music like klezmer and other ethnic genres — filtered through a jazz sensibility with room for swing and improvisation. What this means in practice, as heard on the group’s terrific new CD, This Train (Rounder), is that a traditional tune like "Cluck Old Hen" will open with an Eastern European–flavored rubato passage by klezmer clarinettist Andy Statman sailing over Indian tabla grooves laid down by percussionist Jamey Haddad, before an all-star orchestra of folk fiddlers, including Glaser and guests Jay Ungar, Bruce Molsky, and Darol Anger, grabs the tune and takes it from the Carpathians to the Appalachians. Later on, a few well-placed blasts from Art Baron’s trombone remind you that New Orleans isn’t so far from Kentucky. And in the bridge, pianist Laszlo Gardony finds an affinity between the tune’s harmonies and Thelonious Monk’s "Bemsha Swing" before the entire ensemble brings the barn down on the poor hen in a folk-roots version of free-jazz improvisation.
It’s the sort of musical miscegenation that Glaser and some of the group’s current and former members, including Statman, newgrass banjoist Tony Trischka, bassist Jim Whitney, and mandolinist/guitarist John McGann, have been doing for years, on their own and together in groups like the Beacon Hill Billies. But when Glaser formed the Wayfaring Strangers, in 1997, it was with the intention of exploring the emotional underpinnings and resonances — what he calls the "existential wail" — he heard in the vocals of Bill Monroe and Jimmy Martin. "I really respond to the message of bluegrass songs that go for the jugular. Songs like ‘Memories of Mother and Dad.’ That’s an experience that all human beings have had — the death of their parents — but that’s verboten to talk about in pop music."
Jennifer Kimball (of the Story) and Lucy Kaplansky contributed their distinctive vocals to the group’s first album, Shifting Sands of Time (Rounder, 2001). The new one, which will be celebrated in concert at the Somerville Theatre this Saturday, features three new vocalists: Boston rocker Tracy Bonham; Aoife O’Donovan, a member of eclectic folk group Crooked Still; and Ruth Ungar, daughter of Jay Ungar and a member of the neo-trad folk trio the Mammals. (Saturday’s concert will also include vocalist Sarah Siskind, and Kimball will sit in for Bonham, who’s out of town on the Blue Man Group tour.) Building on Shifting Sands’ emphasis on bluegrass and folk, This Train reaches out to incorporate more gospel influences, including songs identified with Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Mahalia Jackson, and the Staple Singers. "I’m looking for songs that would be spiritual nutrition or existential nourishment for anybody," says Glaser. "The black gospel tradition was just something I revisited and kept coming back to."
But whether it’s gospel or bluegrass, there’s always something subterranean or exotic percolating underneath. Haddad’s pulsing tabla fuels Bonham’s rich, soulful alto on a version of the Staple Singers’ "Sit Down Servant." The Indian-bluegrass link recurs when "When You Go Walking After Midnight" gets peppered by Steve Gorn’s bansuri flute. And Gardony swings a dizzying solo on "Don’t Put Off till Tomorrow" that asks why Bill Monroe didn’t include piano in his ensembles at the same time it reminds you he was a contemporary of Art Tatum.
"None of these discrete elements is in any way revolutionary, but maybe putting these various discrete elements together is new," says Glaser. "The danger lies only in the paucity of my own imagination, but luckily for me, the band has gotten the vibe of how to make this up on the spot. I get frustrated, though, when I hear people describe it as ‘bluegrass-jazz fusion.’ I think, shit, I’d run in the opposite direction if I heard that."
The Wayfaring Strangers perform this Saturday, November 15, at 8 p.m. at the Somerville Theatre, 55 Davis Square; call (617) 876-4275.
[This article originally appeared in the Boston Phoenix on November 13, 2003. http://www.bostonphoenix.com/boston/music/other_stories/documents/03311604.asp
Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]
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