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Published: 2006/10/24
by Brian Ferdman

Dawg’s Groove – The David Grisman Quintet

Dawg’s Groove – The David Grisman Quintet , Acoustic Disc 64

self-titled – The David Grisman Bluegrass Experience, Acoustic Disc 65

New Shabbos Waltz – David Grisman and Andy Statman, Acoustic Disc 66

David Grisman is one of the foremost mandolinists of our time. Having befriended Jerry Garcia at a relatively early age, their partnership and association would eventually yield a plethora of fans for Grisman. But long before the two were recording oodles of sessions together in the early 1990s, Grisman was a traditional bluegrass musician who cut his teeth with The Kentuckians. Eventually, he moved on to team with Garcia and a few ringers for the immensely successful Old and In the Way, a live album that once held claim to being the highest selling bluegrass record in history. While bluegrass may have provided an early platform for Grisman, his forte would one day become his signature brand of "Dawg"music, a unique and playful hybrid of jazz, folk, salsa, blues, Celtic music, and other genres. In addition, Grisman would also find himself stretching into deeper and older musical traditions, even mining his Jewish faith for inspiration. Artistic pioneers often need to find their own financial backing for their projects, so the man with the mandolin successfully formed his own record label, Acoustic Disc, and this label has just delivered three new releases that showcase the bluegrass, Dawg music, and Jewish melodies loved by Grisman.

The David Grisman Bluegrass Experience revolves around the old time bluegrass that is near and dear to Grisman’s heart. He and his younger cohorts deliver a heartfelt take on several classic covers, such as the traditional "I’m Rollin’ On," A.P. Carter’s "Engine143," Jimmy Martin’s "You’ll Be a Lost Ball," and Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs’ "Down the Road." Also included are Grisman’s own "Dawggy Mt. Breakdown" and his all-too-familiar "Old and in the Way." Recording a collection of traditional bluegrass is a noble goal, but after listening to this album, one gets the feeling that we’ve heard this all before. Perhaps such a recording could be invigorating with an assemblage of virtuoso musicians, but this unit doesn’t do much to make their mark on this music. Sure, Grisman expectedly shines on the mandolin, but aside from a nice guitar solo or two, the rest of his band offers very little to write home about. Moreover, the vocals range from mediocre to grating. That old "high lonesome sound" is nowhere to be found, and listening to "Old and In the Way" without the angelic backup voice of Peter Rowan essentially deprives the song of its impact. Grisman has lovingly described bluegrass as his "first big musical thrill" and with the help of these musicians, he gets to "experience that feeling on a continuing basis, both in and out of the living room." The problem is that we are not in the living room. We are the people who paid money to buy a CD that sounds not much better than "Bluegrass Open Mic Night" at your local honkytonk. The David Grisman Bluegrass Experience is adequate background music as you slurp down your beer, but this album isn’t captivating enough to take your mind off the cute redhead at the end of the bar.

Thirty years ago, the David Grisman Quintet began their journey through a multitude of global rhythms, and Dawg’s Groove is the latest chapter in their ongoing story, kicking off in style with Grisman’s "Limestones," a clever, swinging spin on Miles Davis’ "Milestones." The song is in total contrast to the very formal French tango of "La Grande Guignole" that follows. The mandolinist’s "Zambola" is a lighthearted samba that features some excellent picking and plenty of give-and-take between Matt Eakle’s jazzy flute and Enrique Coria’s nimble guitar. Thanks to some cool-as-a-cat brush work from percussionist George Marsh and a loping bass groove from Jim Kerwin, the title track is a laid-back anthem that slinks through the back alley. A more romantic side of the band is on display in the lush 6/8 shuffle of "Cinderella’s Fella," and Eakle’s "My Friend Dawg" is a peppy Latin zinger that features the flautist toying with intonation while slowly dismantling his flute mid-song. The album officially closes with "Blues For Vassar," Grisman’s emotional tribute to the late Vassar Clements. In all, Dawg’s Groove provides exactly what you would expect from an album by the David Grisman Quintet: top-notch musicians producing spirited turns on well-crafted tunes that span a multitude of diverse and exciting genres.

New Shabbos Waltz is Grisman and Andy Statman’s sequel to their critically-acclaimed album Songs of Our Fathers. This release celebrates the two musicians’ Jewish heritage with 13 songs that stem from a variety of Jewish traditions, most of them revolving around the Sabbath. Deep emotional roots are evident in the hallowed opener, "Avinu Malkeinu (Our Father, Our King)" with Statman’s mournful clarinet setting the tone. However, as soon as we are settled in for the journey, the mood shifts with Hal Blaine’s enthusiastic drumming providing the launching point for an upbeat spin on "Anim Zemiros (Song of Glory)," a hymn that dates back to medieval times yet sounds as if it could have come from the catalog of some European alt-rock outfit. Later, the medieval theme is re-visited in "Shabbos HaYom LaShem (The Sabbath, God’s Day)" as Enrique Coria’s guitar is the perfect fuel to ignite an intense, acoustic fire between the dueling mandolins of Grisman and Statman. The humorous nature of Judaism is on display in the cartoonesque title track, which slowly hops along, thanks to Samson Grisman’s bouncing bass, and Bob Brozman’s whimsical slide guitar. By contrast, the tempo is whipped up to a frenzied pace on the jubilant “Old Klezmer,” a turn-of-the-century dance number that is led by Statman’s dexterous clarinet lines. Of course, no album of Jewish music is complete without an examination of the bittersweet nature of life, as evident on the riveting closer, “Ani Ma’amin (I Believe),” which was composed by a rabbi in a cattle car on his way to the Treblinka death camp and passed on by three men who jumped off the train (one of whom was immediately killed) and eventually succeeded in getting the melody into the hands of the Chassidim in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. On this song, as in every track on New Shabbos Waltz, Grisman and Statman do not take their charge lightly. There is both sorrow and optimism in their playing, and they don’t need lyrics to tell this powerful story of a proud people heading to their graves. Every note these two musicians play demonstrates their tremendous depth and understanding of the Jewish tradition, and their commitment to spread the stories of this music guarantees that those who have fallen did not die in vain.

These three albums show Grisman to be a fine performer, although it is obvious that they all do not provide the same degree of artistic fulfillment. Dawg’s Groove employs a superior band of instrumentalists who elevate Grisman’s playing to an elite level and New Shabbos Waltz gives him a virtuoso foil who can match his emotions and communicate on a higher level. On the other hand, he is forced to carry the musicians of The David Grisman Bluegrass Experience, a band that is certainly not in his league. The lesson here is clear: a star musician can only make music as great as the musicians around him.

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