The Wayfaring Strangers,
Shifting Sands of Time
(Rounder, 2001)

If you like the outer shores of acoustic string music, where the landscape shimmers between bluegrass and jazz and old-time and classical and folk and world music, and everything mixes together to make a new and exciting music you haven't heard before, don't even finish this review -- just click on the Amazon bar and order this CD.

First of all, just look at the personnel: klezmer/jazz/bluegrass god Andy Statman on clarinet and mandolin; Tony Trischka (Bela Fleck's teacher) on banjo; John McGann on guitar and mandolin, Jennifer Kimball on vocals, Bruce Barth on piano, Jim Whitney on bass, and the whole thing is put together by violinist/violist Matt Glaser. There are also a raft of guest instrumentalists and vocalists, including Ralph Stanley (heard of him?), Rhonda Vincent, Laurie Lewis, Tim O'Brien, Darol Anger, John Blake and more. Still with me?

OK then, let's go to the music. The title track lets us know what we're in for: you've got a whole bunch of genres here (with a Bedouin flavor predominating), with a great melody, haunting clarinet and fine vocals. The old standard, "Man of Constant Sorrow," is next, and I'm betting it's the only place you'll ever hear Ralph Stanley comped by jazz piano -- it's surreal and utterly twisted, but in a great way! I was familiar with "High on a Mountain" primarily from Del McCoury's version, with breakneck speed and high lonesome singing, but it's way different here, with Kimball and Lucy Kaplansky doing it as a gorgeous ballad.

Tim O'Brien shifts us into blues/jazz with "I'm Blue, I'm Lonesome Too," which has some swinging solos. "Motherless Child" gets a string quintet reading, with Darol Anger, John Blake, Carrie Rodriguez, Eugene Friesen and Rushad Eggleston sitting in. There's a great vocal, and a lovely, bluesy string instrumental break. There's more blues in the Laurie Lewis-led "Cry, Cry, Darling," and a "June Apple" the likes of which you've never tasted, starting with a "Bulgarian choir" opening and then going into hot bluegrass. There's an amazing mando solo, and it all goes ballistic at the end. The liner notes, however, don't have to tell us that Anger quotes Monk and Stravinsky -- you'll know. In fact, I'd recommend listening to this album and reading the notes later -- they give away a lot of the delightful surprises!

There's some nifty klezmer clarinet on Bill Monroe's "Memories of You," and a Matt Glaser setting of three Emily Dickinson poems works quite well -- the little lady's depression blends nicely with bluegrass's despairing, lonesome sound. (By the way, in this song, Anger quotes the first movement of Mozart's Symphony No. 40 -- not in the liner notes....)

We're back to that old jazzman, Bill Monroe, with "Working on a Building," to which Tracy Bonham brings a nicely bluesy vocal. "Strange Bird" is an interesting song by Mark Simos, but for me the greater interest lies in what the instrumentalists do with their solos. Rhonda Vincent does a sterling job on "Rank Stranger," and there's some beautiful clarinet work in the mix, and the CD concludes with "Wayfaring Stranger," in which the title character takes on traits of the mythical Wandering Jew, thanks to the klezmer clarinet at the beginning and the eerie, modal harmonies.

Enough talk. Go get this one -- listen and enjoy, and be grateful that there are so many musicians around who can take these old chestnuts and make them sound startling and new. I only hope that the Wayfaring Strangers will wander back to us poor mortals with more music before too long.

[ by Chet Williamson ]
Rambles: 2 March 2002

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