King Django – King Django’s Roots and Culture (1998).

I stumbled across this during some Googling of Andy Statman. This is how music can be a mystery tour in this day and age. You find one artist who is interesting and Google them and what they are interested in and unimagined treasures may reveal themselves.

And I’d never imagined a Ska/Klezmer fusion. Never. Not in my wildest dreams.

King Django (not his real name) has made a career in and has a big reputation in Jamaican music. He argues that there are similarities between the Ashkenazi folk music and the precursor of reggae – an off-beat feel and a lyrical bent towards the Old Testament. And he makes it work surprisingly well. This album has way more than superficial novelty value going for it.

The foundation of every track is Jamaican, but the eastern European touches are layered on top in an affectionate, effective and surprisingly natural manner courtesy of Statman on mandolin or clarinet, noted Klezmer fiddler Alicia Svigals and King Django himself on melodica and harmonica.

The most striking thing about the album, the most obvious juxtaposition, is the Yiddish lyrics to many of the songs. His sources are multiple: Some songs are his own; some are Jewish folk songs given a new arrangement; and he takes two songs from the British “Two Tone” craze of the early 80s – Madness’s “Night Boat To Cairo” and the Specials “Do Nothing” – and translates the lyrics. But possibly the best songs are the ones with English lyrics: “A Single Thread” is a touching lyric about an old lady missing her long gone husband (a plausible interpretation is that she survived world war II and he did not); “Seven” extols the Jewish Sabbath in witty dub style; and, best of all, “Slaughter” is a hard hitting protest song about the still present dangers of anti-Semitism.

And you know, I don’t learn. I went and bought the re-issue with bonus tracks (it was 9c more!). And, yes, you get extra tracks and they’re interesting AND at least this time they resequenced the album to try to make it flow better rather than just chuck the extra tracks on the end. But after a couple of listens it started to feel not so good an experience, so I googled the original track list and played it in that order without the extras and as a whole it works way better – missing out on the repeated ideas present in the extras and climaxing with the potent “Slaughter”.

But either version goes a lot further and offers more fun and sustained interest than you might imagine from the descriptions: “Ska/Klezmer fusion”, “Ska Mitzvah” and so on.

“Hashem watch over I”, a repeated line from the opening track, seems to sum it all up rather nicely.

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Rhiannon Giddens – Tomorrow Is My Time (2015)

Rhiannon Giddens has been the one constant thread through the various lineups of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. She’s a conservatory trained singer with a great feel for traditional music and not inconsiderable chops on the banjo and fiddle.

It seemed to me early on that she was one of the most interesting things about the “drops”, not just for her own material and her instrumental contributions but also the way she showed that restless, far-ranging spirit that so many great roots artists have and which enables them to embrace music from outside their nominal genre and perform it with respect for the both the material and the tradition. In Giddens’s case this included a reworking of the contemporary R ‘n B hit “Hit ‘Em Up Style” and a superb a capela rendition of the British folk song “Reynardine”.

There’s been some odd solo outings along the way – more often live than on disc – but this is really her first album-length solo project. One that I’ve been waiting for with some anticipation. I got it from iTunes this morning and I’m calling it already: This is a brilliant album and for what it’s worth (not very much) and at this time of year I’ll be surprised if it’s not making all sorts of “best of” lists round about the end of this year.

It was as clear as dishwater is dull from listening to the Drops that Giddens was a vocalist of skill and distinction. So I was not unprepared for a strong vocal performance, but this… oh my.

This is one of those albums where everything comes together at the same time. A fine production from T-Bone Burnett, well chosen backing players (I suspect mostly chosen by Burnett, and some of them are “go to” players of his), strong material and, in the spot light, stage front and center, a stunning vocal performance from the woman whose name is on the album cover.

There’s no instrumental contributions from her here (amongst other crack players Gabe Witcher of Punch Brothers takes the fiddle role), the focus is on her considerable gifts vocal gifts. And she has it all: range, control, feel, timing, dynamics and the ability to sell a song to the listener.

This morning on Facebook I posted that I was listening to Rhiannon Giddens. A friend of mine initially read this as I was listening to Rhianna and was much amused. Well, Rihanna and every other pop princess you can think of wishes she could deliver like this. It’s a potent, moving, near flawless performance and yet not once does she resort to histrionics or showboating for it’s own sake..

This is the real deal.

There’s a not-so-hidden sub plot to this disc. All the songs – bar the closing number which she wrote herself – are associated with strong female musical figures: Bessie Smith, Odetta, Nina Simone, Dolly Parton (who is hard for rock/pop fans to take seriously, but we should), Patsy Cline and Sister Rosetta Tharpe (one of the immediate precursors of Rock ‘n Roll and a major influence on Elvis Presley) amongst them. The choices are consistent in this regard, and just in case you don’t spot it (I wasn’t sure I had) she thanks them all in the liner notes.

There are jaw-dropping, magical performances all over the place and she shows that as well as tacking the blues and string band music she made her name with she can easily handle contemporary pop (an imaginative, bang up to date reworking of the traditional “Black is the Colour”) and country (Dolly Parton’s “Don’t Let It Trouble Your Mind”). She delivers strong gospel performances (Tharpe’s “Up Above My Head”, Elizabeth Cotten’s “Shake Sugaree”) and a show-stopping (even in this company) performance of the Patsy Cline hit “She’s Got You”. All, as previously noted, without giving away any of her own strong musical character. It’s that character that holds the record together. Irrespective of the material and the origins and the styles this is HER album. And you should make it yours too.

Coincidentally and unhappily this album appears to be the subject of Richard Haslop’s last weekly column for Business Day. I’m sure they have their reasons, but this is a loss for the more adventurous listener in South Africa. Let’s hope that somebody else has the good sense to give him a regular soapbox.

Some videos

Hi Y’all,
Some YouTube clips from some of the albums I’ve mentioned here. I’ve prioritised sound over eye candy

Terry Lee Hale – Tornado Alley (1995)

Hale is an American artist who these days operates mostly in Europe where he seems to be better known than in his home country.  I suppose he’s best categorised as a “singer songwriter” though he has an interesting guitar style that allows him to branch out into instrumental territory as well. He uses a lot of altered tunings on the guitar, and he’s an effective and competent slide guitarist. Despite all of that, he’s operating in a broad genre which whilst it might not get a lot of radio play certainly has staying power.

The album opens with “Swamp Walk”, an example of his slide playing. It’s moody, a little eerie and an effective scene setter.  And it’s a moody album, full of characters for whom life seems to have not met expectations. “Forget About Love” combines post-relationship disillusionment with a repeated promise that this time, but starting tomorrow, the narrator will forget about love – and he wants his friends to help him. This is not the only song that offers what maybe a false promise, possibly made from false bravado.

Albums don’t have to have a unifying theme, and I think sometimes we see such themes when they’re not really there. It’s tempting to characterise this album as being dominated by the not uncommon theme of broken relationships, but I don’t think that’s sustainable across the album. However there is a feeling that a lot of the characters in these songs are running out of time or have hit a dead end. Even in the happier, up-tempo “The Ballad of Molly and Shelley” the two female protagonists seem to be running away from something – and getting unwelcome reminders.

The album focusses on Hale’s strengths and doesn’t give the songs more than they need. The setting is often sparse, but it works well here. Hale has a strong but plain delivery and mostly uses plain, direct language. And that’s not a criticism.

“Forget About Love” shows off his style well with a strong and effective delivery and clever guitar parts that aid and support the song. “City Life” is slower, less overt but still conveys the song’s mood effectively as the narrator ponders a change of scene. There’s an effective violin part on that track, and this is another strength of the album – Hale and his producer bring backing players in, but the added parts never crowd the songs unnecessarily.

There’s an uptempo spell about 3/4 way through that serves as a change up of mood, but the final run of songs are perhaps the strongest and hardest hitting on the album and maybe the darkest. “SAM DTs” is Hale and guitar and a dark portrait of a substance abuser drying out alone. “Tornado Alley” is a metaphor for the inner turmoil that the song’s character carries everywhere with him, and how he’s got used to it (“I was born and raised”) but his lover never could. “Like Raymond Carver” is the final good bye and a walk off into the sunset and down the road.

So in a way there’s nothing ground breaking here. The subject matter is not unusual, but as I said this genre, these sorts of songs have a lot of legs.  It’s not so much what you say as how you say it, the details in the songs and in the delivery. And this is where this album shines – the songs and the delivery are strong and the production always has enough there, but just enough.

If you like some songs that you can listen to, songs with stories or that paint pictures, and if you enjoy a stripped down delivery that puts the songs and the stories up front then Hale might be a rewarding addition to your collection.

Bob’s continuing adventures with the music of Andy Statman

“Andy Statman albums are like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.” Forrest Gump’s mother.

A while back I blogged about the album Old Brooklyn by Andy Statman. This album took some work for me because it veers into territory I’m not very familiar with – notably some of the more avant garde areas of jazz and Ashkenazi Jewish folk music. It’s a very eclectic album (you get a spiritual sung by Ricky Skaggs AND a duet for clarinet and kettle on hot plate) and the musical stew Statman serves up on it is anything but bland. But while I was getting confused and surprised this album also had me grinning in a way that few other albums or musicians have managed. Literally grinning. Like a fool. .

So the only sensible thing to do was to get more Statman.

I did.

It turns out that he has more range than even Old Brooklyn let on.

There’s also a little message in all of this about not judging books by covers. Statman is an observing Chassidic Jew, what one might call a member of the “black hat brigade”. So he dresses in an austere fashion, observes all the dietary laws, doesn’t do drugs or hang around in bars, goes to shul and etc etc. Yet the music he produces is exhilarating and uninhibited to a degree that a lot of more outwardly flamboyant characters can’t match. Black and white movies can have spectacular soundtracks.

Anyways. I had taken Old Brooklyn on the advice (not personal but in a column) of Richard Haslop. This is a fairly recent album. My next stop was the most recent (at time of writing) Statman album Superstring Theory. So I was hardly starting at the very beginning.

Superstring Theory is a single album with a narrower scope and Statman being a good host and playing to the strengths of his guests – fiddler Michael Cleveland and multi-instrumentalist Tim O’Brien who mostly plays guitar on this album. Statman plays hardly any clarinet. The first impression is of a sort of bluegrass on steroids with Statman throwing in lots of jazzy and Eastern European flourishes, but that’s really only a starting point. They touch on surf rock too and even cover Richie Valens’s “Come On Let’s Go”. Cleveland is a terrific player and Statman gives him a lot of time in the spotlight. O’Brien, like so many Americana/Bluegrass players often doesn’t play more than is necessary and thus doesn’t always display the full range of his skills, but here he gets to stretch out in a jazzier setting than he usually operates in. There’s waltzes and bluegrassy tunes, but there’s also surf rock and in particular a terrific Django-esque tune “French Press” that they take at exhilarating pace. Not all the experiments work. The Richie Valens tune doesn’t really go anywhere special, and the singalong “Brooklyn London Rome” might have been fun in the studio but gets boring on the record. So it’s a Curate’s egg, but the good parts are so good that it still puts a smile on the dial.

The latter consideration may be important when discussing Statman, who has some strong ideas about the spiritual and uplifting power of music.

The next that I got was Songs Of Our Fathers which is a duet album with Statman’s old mentor David Grisman. This album is all Klezmer – the folk music of the Ashkenazi Jews in Eastern Europe. Some of the tunes are traditional, some of them are more recent but drawing on the Klezmer tradition (it turns out that Statman has been a major figure in the revival of Klezmer music). There’s none of the sense of uninhibited soloing that I found on other albums, but it’s still a fine recording that has attractions even for those not familiar with the tradition being explored. The dance tunes (which would have been played at weddings) really make you want to get up and dance.

Then (in my own Statman timeline) came Between Heaven and Earth. Here I’m really, really out of my usual musical stomping ground and I have little in my experience to compare this to. Staman’s idea here is to take tunes out of the Chassisidic oral tradition and create instrumental music from them. Given that a lot of this music wasn’t written down and published but passed down within the tradition we could argue that this is folk music. But Statman himself says it’s jazz, so we’ll leave it there. The instrumentation here is mostly bass, drums, piano and Statman’s clarinet, but Grisman pops up one track as does the remarkable Bela Fleck. This is mostly intense, contemplative music with a lot of dynamic range and thus not well suited to commute listening on a train or, heaven help us, a bus. You need time to LISTEN to this, in an environment where there’s not a lot of background noise. But late at night, or, as did happen to me, on a holiday-season train when passenger counts are way down and you can get a whole coach to yourself, there are moments of transcendent beauty to be had here. I suspect it’s going to take me a while to really get to grips with this, and it may turn out to be a door into a musical suburb that I knew existed but had never explored.

Ever onwards. Statman doesn’t seem tied to one record label, and all these labels seem to have different distribution arrangements. And he’s not exactly Justin Bieber when it comes to volume of sales. So some of the more highly regarded Statman albums aren’t available on iTunes (!) or similar services and you have to go for a physical disc (!!). So when putting in an Amazon order for Christmas presents I included (for me, from me) East Flatbush Blues and Andy’s Ramble.

Statman started his musical journey as a bluegrass mandolin player, and the latter of those two albums is a homage to Bill Monroe, recorded in 1994 after Statman had spent some years away from that genre. It’s short on the left-field touches (swathes really) that I enjoyed so much on the first couple of his albums that I heard, but the playing (from Statman and from the band he assembled) is top notch and there’s that sense of joyousness that seems to pervade so much of his work.

East Flatbush Blues (2006) is also Statman the mandolin player and it kicks off with Monroe’s “Rawhide”, but this is not really what you’d call bluegrass. For a start there’s a drummer throughout. It’s Statman and  his current (and very good) rhythm section of Jim Whitney on bass and Larry Eagle on drums and percussion (they also play on Old Brooklyn and Superstring Theory) and they operate here as a jazz trio who just happen to have taken some bluegrass tunes as the jumping off point for their extemporisations – one critic suggested that this album represents the birth of “bopgrass”. The music sounds and feels very immediate, like they recorded it in real time without overdubs, and this turns out to be Statman’s preferred recording MO. My initial thought was that it was a lot of fun but they jumped into the solos rather too quickly instead of stating the themes and then developing them. But some exploration on YouTube showed that this is how Monroe himself worked with “Rawhide”. It’s a platform for soloing – and it takes good players to do it justice and keep it interesting.

Which is no problem for Statman who is a very skilled player who offers up engaging, interesting tunes and solos, and seems to be able to attract plenty of co-conspirators who can do the same and create a space in which they can show their skills and go into interesting musical places.

Andy Statman has a breadth of vision that is uncommon. He’s not easily pigeon holed, and as he turns his hand to different forms, or chucks them all in the blender, it always seems that he’s explored them at depth and with great respect. He’s not just looking for enough form to add an interesting veneer to his music, he really gets to grips with whatever music he explores. He’s clearly an elite player and there’s an academic aspect to what he does and the way he explores music. But most of all he’s looking at music as a spiritual and emotional force, and this is the trump card. More than the top-notch playing, more than the marvellous eclecticism is the way he gets inside your head and your heart and gives the emotional strings a good tug.

Statman has soul.

Punch Brothers – Who’s Feeling Young Now? (2012)

Punch Bothers (there is no definite article) began as a backing band for a Chris Thile project.

Chris Thile was a teen bluegrass prodigy who then rose to fame as a member of Nickel Creek (not to be confused with Nickelback).

Together they are one of the most gifted, talented bands around. Most of them started off in bluegrass, but although the band has a classic bluegrass line up (fiddle, guitar, mandolin, banjo, bass) they position themselves as being about anything bar bluegrass.

You might also see a picture of Punch Brothers with their instruments and think they’re something similar to Mumford and Sons. But the Mumfords don’t have the instrumental fire power nor the breadth of vision that this band has.

Bluegrass has always prized a high level of musical skill, but a significant number of musicians who learned their trade in bluegrass have modernised the genre or moved into the so-called “new acoustic” genre which takes bluegrass skills into new territories. Punch Brothers are a notable example of this broadening of horizons.

Thile, the principle songwriter (though all compositions are jointly credited) has been involved in a broad range of projects, ranging from the bluegrass that he first made his name in to new age chamber music in the company of Yo-Yo Ma. Here the compositions tend towards the less sophisticated (for him) and often tend towards a contemporary indie rock sound – or an acoustic version thereof. But they branch out in other directions too. We might consider the two covers that are included to be close to the poles of the range of music on this album.

“Kid A” is a Radiohead number given a great arrangement with lots of atmospheric parts.

“Fliippen” is from, Swedish folk band Väsen and it’s the closest they get to folk or bluegrass. The band really tear into this one with great ensemble playing before they break into the solos.

But they also try a sort of vaudeville sound on “Patchwork Girlfriend” and the opening “Movement and Location” mixes minimalism with rhythmic sophistication.

Nothing seems to be too much for them and they repeatedly demonstrate very high levels of skill and clever ideas. Noam Pikelny often catches the ear with very fast but cleanly executed banjo parts. Thile gets in some jaw-dropping mandolin solos. But a lot of the best playing is not soloing but the band working brilliantly as a dynamic ensemble with very tight timing and great attack.

This band has really a lot going on. Not just an eclectic vision and wide range, but the skills to execute whatever it is they conceive. The compositions (mostly but not exclusively Thile’s) are strong and engaging. They have a fabulous rhythmic drive despite the absence of any kind of percussion. They have fine vocals too. Thile takes most of the lead vocals but Witcher does a good job on “Hundred Dollars” and let’s hope he does more vocals in the future. Like all the best acoustic players (and these guys are all amongst the very best) they understand light and shade and make good use of dynamics to enhance the effect of the music.

The recording is not of the same standard, is not what an acoustic band with such fine skills deserves. At times the compression that is applied flattens out the dyanmic range, and often there is deliberate (well… so one can reasonably conclude) clipping and distortion. Gimmicky effects are applied to the vocals on some tracks.

But whilst the sound could better suit the band, if you have any liking for high class acoustic music, especially with some breadth, then there is much to enjoy here. The constantly impressive playing, their exuberance, and their unerring musical instincts trump all else.