CD brings new life to ancient Jewish melodiesby dan pine, staff writer
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When disparate musical styles collide, sometimes the results aren't pretty. Witness when good opera singers go pop, or when rockers try their hand at being Tony Bennett.
But sometimes the results are pretty. Or spectacular, as with "New Shabbos Waltz," a new CD from mandolinist Dave Grisman and clarinetist Andy Statman.
Grisman's stock-in-trade has long been a stripped-down Americana, often blending bluegrass, folk and a touch of jazz. Statman is universally regarded as one of the greatest klezmer clarinetists around (not to mention a superb jazz musician).
The two joined forces some years ago on two previous CDs, 1982's "Mandolin Abstractions" and 1995's "Songs of Our Fathers." The former featured all Jewish music, proving how well the two could hybridize jazz, klezmer and traditional Chassidic niggunim.
On their new all-instrumental CD, Statman and Grisman keep things delightfully minimalist (the back cover is branded "Acoustic Disc — 100 Percent Handmade"). What it lacks in overdubs, though, it more than makes up for in underdubs.
The CD opens with the High Holy Day classic "Avinu Malkeinu," here a forlorn two-instrument duet with just a whisper of whimsy. The stillness doesn't last long, as the two come back with full band on "Anim Zemiros," which features Grisman stalwarts Bob Brozman on guitar, Jim Kerwin on bass, and drummer Hal Blaine.
Other musicians -- notably classical guitarist Enrique Coria and tuba player Zacharia Spellman -- turn up with the band on several tracks. But Grisman and Statman (who look very much frum and frummer on the back cover) remain front and center.
"Pischu Li" is a sad waltz featuring Statman playing in the clarinet's uppermost register. He repeats the feat in Shlomo Carlebach's "Mim'komkha." To elicit such sweetness while playing almost out of range of human hearing is a testament to Statman's musical aplomb.
The title track is not a very compelling piece of music, but Grisman's guitar-banjo does add an interesting tone, almost like a harmonium. And putting a twist on "Yerushalayim Shel Zahav" isn't easy, but these two spin it as a psalm set to music, doing justice to one of the most beloved Jewish melodies of all time.
But the album's singular high point has to be their take on the classic Yiddish ballad "Oifen Pripitchik," which has to be the most overdone and, usually, over-shmaltzed song in all of Jewish music.
Not here, though. With Coria's guitar providing ballast, Statman and Grisman play together with solemn simplicity. It's the best track on the CD.
Occasionally, "New Shabbos Waltz" breaks into a bit of triple-time frenzy, as on "Old Klezmer" and "Ya'aleh." But the Shabbat niggunim are the heart of this recording, and require a measure of Sabbath mellowness, as on the CD's closer, the stately "Ani Ma'amin." (The latter is a special tune, having been composed by Rabbi Ezriel Dovid Fastag while riding in a cattle car on the way to the Treblinka death camp).
Both Grisman and Statman are restless artists in the best sense of the term. Neither is content to repeat the same old same old from album to album, and both reliably stretch themselves artistically with every outing. Let's hope the two will get together for another someday. Meanwhile, "New Shabbos Waltz" should put a spring in the step of every fan of Jewish music.
"New Shabbos Waltz" from David Grisman and Andy Statman (Acoustic Disc Records, www.acousticdisc.com).
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