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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1750

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Andy Statman: Superstring Theory
by George Graham

(Shefa Records As broadcast on WVIA-FM 11/20/2013)

The New Acoustic music genre us not so new anymore. The style emerged in the early 1980s employing the instrumentation of bluegrass to make eclectic music, often with jazz influence. It was popularized by artists like David Grisman, Tony Rice, Bela Fleck, New Grass Revival and quite a few others. Many of those artists are now in their fifties and sixties, while a younger generation are following in their footsteps: people like Chris Thile, his group the Punch Brothers, and eclectic bluegrass groups the Infamous Stringdusters. And while the field is not as prolific as it was back in the day, the pioneering artists remain active and continue to create interesting music. This week, we have a new recording by veteran mandolin player Andy Statman, whose CD is called Superstring Theory.

Andy Statman is a native New Yorker, and started on banjo and guitar at age 12. One of his early teachers was David Grisman, who would become a long-time friend. He also learned to play reed instruments, starting with sax. He spent a while playing sax with the rock band Earth Opera. After dropping out of college to pursue music full-time, he got a gig with David Bromberg's band playing mandolin, and also joined a couple of bluegrass bands, including Country Cookin. Interestingly, he also took a keen interest in klezmer music, and during the 1970s studied clarinet to play klezmer and has been playing the style regularly. His 1979 debut album under his own name was called Jewish Klezmer Music. And of the about 30 albums he had released since then, about a third are klezmer recordings, with the rest bluegrass and new acoustic music. Statman is a also a winner of a National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage fellowship. He regularly plays with a trio including Jim Whitney on bass and Larry Eagle on drums.

For his new recording, there are only a few hints of klezmer. This is a mandolin album, in the classic New Acoustic mode -- emphasizing the eclectic with some unlikely and sometimes amusing stylistic juxtapositions. To enhance the bluegrass aspect of the album, his two guests throughout are Tim O'Brien, a great songwriter and frequent Nashville multi-instrumentalist studio musician, and one of the rising stars on bluegrass fiddle Michael Cleveland.

The material is mostly original, and it spans the jazzy bluegrass that is considered the staple of New Acoustic Music, to some Cajun to an old folk song, to some funk and blues influence, to a kind of mandolin surf music, and a cultural mashup that does include some klezmer. Statman does not sing, but there are two tunes with vocals by Tim O'Brien, and one with a kind of large chorus of singers.

The fairly generous 12-track CD opens with a kind of funky bluegrass tune called Little Addie, named after what one of his granddaughters calls her pacifier. It's a nice stylistic dichotomy with a good opportunity for soloing by fiddler Michael Cleveland. <<>>

The following track, Mando at the Flambo, is straight out blues and gives Statman a chance to stretch out on his mandolin. <<>>

The first of the vocals sung by Tim O'Brien is a traditional folk song called Green Green Rocky Road. The band has fun with the tune. <<>>

One piece in keeping with the New Acoustic Music tradition of jazzy virtuosity is called The French Press. It's a fast, minor-key compostion that evokes both bluegrass and the jazz style popularized by Django Reinhardt. <<>>

Michael Cleveland is featured as prominently as Statman himself on much of the album, and there are some tracks that revolve around Cleveland's fiddle. Herman Howe's Bayou is a Cajun style waltz in which the fiddle is the natural center of the melody of the piece, though Statman also gets a chance to solo. <<>>

Statman has written a number of pieces in the past that evoke Eastern European music. Waltz for Ari is a slow, sad tune that shows that the group can play with a nice degree of tenderness. <<>>

And there's some rock and roll influence. One of the more amusing tracks on the album is Surfin' Slivovitz, a surf rock tune on bluegrass instrumentation. <<>>

The other cover is the Richie Valens rock and roll standard Come Let's Go, with O'Brien again on the vocals. Though well done, it's not as interesting as one might expect. <<>>

The closing piece, called Brooklyn London Rome is the album's most wildly eclectic. Statman gets out his clarinet and plays a klezmer interlude after the curious chorus vocals list a series of cities. <<>>

Mandolinist Andy Statman's new CD Superstring Theory is an enjoyable album that carries on the eclectic tradition of New Acoustic music going back to the 1980s, with a healthy mix of styles, sometimes in fun, unexpected mashups. Statman concentrates on his mandolin and the bluegrass roots of the music, but he also lets a little of his alter ego of a klezmer clarinet player come through. With the combination of his regular trio, plus the addition of Nashville luminaries multi-instrumentalist Tim O'Brien and fiddler Michael Cleveland, in this Brooklyn-made recording, Superstring Theory achieves the goal of a tasteful fusion of genres. The musicianship is first class, and the compositions are generally worthwhile and interesting.

Our grade for sound quality is close to an "A." The acoustic instrumentation is well-captured and generally clean. One thing that is noticeable is Statman's tendency to hum rather tunelessly when he plays his mandolin, especially when he is improvising. That is sometimes audible on the album. The dynamic range of the recording, how well it handles the differences between loud and soft, is decent but there is still some volume compression evident.

There are some significant mandolinists who have emerged from the New Acoustic scene, David Grisman, Sam Bush, Mike Marshall and Chris Thile. Andy Statman is another veteran artist who uses the instrument in creative ways, and his new release Superstring Theory is a very worthwhile recording and a nice addition to the field.

(c) Copyright 2013 George D. Graham. All rights reserved.
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