New York Music Daily

Love's the Only Engine of Survival

An Expertly Playful, Psychedelic New Album and Yet Another Barbes Show by Bluegrass Master Andy Statman

The other night at Barbes, there was a bluegrass band playing in the back. It was one of those immutably grim, raw, late winter evenings this city has had to deal with lately. Nobody, not even birds or cats, hates rain more than people in the venue business since nobody comes out. This particular moment was the kind where you plug in your phone charger, have a swift one, reconnect with the outside world, then head off to deal with what everyone’s throwing at you.

It would have been more fun to stick around tor the bluegrass band, because they were good. Gene Yellin, leader of the Night Kitchen, was playing guitar, and way over in the corner on the mandolin, expertly picking out a spiky lattice of notes, was Andy Statman. He’d just played a sold-out show at Carnegie Hall – and here he was, chilling with his friends at Barbes, not seeming to care if anyone other than his bandmates had decided to brave the storm.

Statman has been a pillar of the Barbes scene since the very beginning: if memory serves right, his monthly Wednesday night 8 PM residency there is in its sixteenth year now. And he’s the rare musician who’s iconic in two completely different styles: he’s also a virtuoso klezmer clarinetist.

Statman’s next Barbes gig is April 3 at 8 PM. He also has a new album, Monroe Bus – streaming at Spotify – on which he plays mostly mandolin. Although the record is a shout out to his and every other bluegrass musician’s big influence, Bill Monroe, it’s a mix of traditionally-inspired material and acoustic psychedelia. Alongside the rhythm section in his regular trio – bassist Jim Whitney and drummer Larry Eagle – Statman is bolstered by Michael Cleveland on fiddle and Glenn Patscha on piano and organ.

A picture in the cd booklet speaks for itself. It shows Monroe making his way to the stage at a performance in Fincastle, Virginia in 1966. In the background is a sixteen-year-old Andy Statman. Each looks very focused on his individual business; neither seems aware of the other. At this point in time, Statman has been playing even longer than Monroe, the “father of bluegrass,” had then. And it shows: his mandolin style has a rare elegance. His chords and his phrasing often have a deep blues influence, and he gets a full range out of the instrument rather than just picking it lickety-split like so many other bluegrass hotshots do.

Cleveland takes the first, dancing lead as the title track sways along over Statman’s unpredictable changes, the bandleader taking a characteristically edgy, bluesy solo. Reminiscence has some of Statman’s most gorgeous voicings here, although the organ threatens to subsume them. Ice Cream on the  Moon is a surreal mashup of Charlie Parker, Romany jazz and bluegrass, with a big breakdown at the end, while Ain’t no Place for a Girl Like You is all over the map, a Leftover Salmon-class blend of gospel, oldschool soul and jamgrass.

There’s a languid southern soul influence in Reflections, driven by Whitney’s bass; then Eagle introduces a clave! Old East River Road has an enigmatic, uneasy haze, then the band take the trippiness several notches higher with the bitingly klezmer-flavored, offhandedly creepy Brooklyn Hop.

The sad, nostalgic Lakewood Waltz has a late 19th century feel, Mark Berney’s cornet looming in the background. Statman’s rapidfire phrasing is on dazzling display in the Statman Romp – again, with distant klezmer tinges – and also in Mockingbird, a brisk shuffle tune.

Stark harmonies from Cleveland and Whitney anchor Brorby’s Blues as Statman rustles and trills overhead. Raw Ride is the album’s most deviously funny track: there’s a little Rawhide and a whole lot of Bob Wills in its briskly shuffling swing. The last track, Burger and Fries is a summery, gospel-fueled midtempo cookout of a tune. It’s hard to think of anyone taking bluegrass further outside the box, and having as much fun with it, as Statman does here.

A Vicarious Western Appreciation of an Epic Iraqi Musical Tradition

Amir ElSaffar may be best known for his epically haunting, slowly crescendoing, highly improvisational big band music, but the roots of that paradigm-shifting sound can be found in his smaller group, Safaafir. The Chicago-born trumpeter/multi-instrumentalist went to Iraq to connect with his heritage, where he met singer Hamid Al-Saadi, who would mentor him in the centuries-old Iraqi maqam tradition. Last night at Lincoln Center, Safaafir backed Al-Saadi in a towering, majestic, sold-out performance whose unease and ecstasy transcended linguistic limitations.

“It wasn’t so quiet in the dressing room,” the bandleader joked as the group tuned up. “Thank you for being so respectful.” He began the show playing the rippling santoor, his sister Dena on viola, George Ziadeh on oud, Tim Moore on percussion and a trio of backup singers.

Throughout the night, the melodies fell somewhere in between the traditional western scale and the bracing microtones of Arabic music, sometimes evoking an eerie major-on-minor ambience. There’s also a frequent trancelike quality to this music, evident from the pensive, insistent, straightforward pulse of the night’s opening instrumental intro. Then they launched into a syncopated antiphon, Al-Saadi leading the band in a stark, dramatic call and response. Moments like this are all the more tantalizing when you don’t speak the language: what was it about this music that sent it underground during the Saddam Hussein regime?

Dena ElSaffar delivered jauntily dancing lines, goosebump-inducing microtonal trills and alternately spare and lush washes of sound in contrast with her brother’s slowly rising, rippling crescendos. Ziadeh’s solos and exchanges with the other musicians tended to be more brooding. Al-Saadi would add aching, tremoloing ornamentation, especially as the songs would slowly coalesce out of an improvisation. Often the songs would begin rather somberly and then lighten as the rhythm came in.

There also wasn’t any traditional western verse/chorus dichotomy, the group reliant on each others’ cues as well as Al-Saadi’s carefully modulated dynamic shifts. Sharp-fanged chromatics gave way to sunnier grooves as the songs went along: a drinking tune, an ode to a beautiful woman, Sufi devotional melodies and a song about two speculators bickering over who was to blame for their mutual losses. Plus ca change. It was also extraordinarily catchy: from Egypt to points further east, music that relies on melody rather than harmony tends to be that way.  The night’s most rapturously haunting, gorgeous number was a slowly swaying anthem in a mode close to the Arabic hijaz. The most easygoing were what could have been an acoustic version of an electronic habibi pop hit, and a triumphant anthem over a rat-a-tat groove on which Dena ElSaffar played jowza fiddle.

In an era where artists from predominantly Muslim countries are demonized, it’s encouraging to see the nation’s flagship cultural institution going against the grain. Lincoln Center’s Jordana Leigh, who emceed, spoke of how her organization is home to “Programming really designed to represent New York City, an international city of diversity and immigrants – we celebrate all of that on our stage.” Meera Dugal – during her Lincoln Center tenure – programmed the show in conjunction with the Artistic Freedom Initiative, who to date have provided free legal representation along with help with resettlement and work permits to over 200 international artists at risk.

The next free concert at Lincoln Center’s Broadway atrium space just north of 62nd St. is April 4 at 7:30 PM with popular, rustic Americana songwriter Leyla McCalla – who shifts between oldtimey string band music, blues and Haitian sounds. Early arrival is always a good idea here.

And Al-Saadi and Safaafir are at Pioneer Works on April 8 at 7 PM for $10 in advance.