Wayfaring Strangers find common ground
Kids don't like the stuff their elders like: It's one of pop culture's most cherished marketing laws. So what's up with the Wayfaring Strangers, the acclaimed jazz-grass band fired by the 47-year-old fiddler Matt Glaser and the 20-year-old singer Aoife O'Donovan?.
"We have people in their 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s, which is really great," O'Donovan says. "There's definitely an upswing of young people playing traditional music and older musicians interested in playing with them. It's the same music, but we all come at it from different angles."
The band is the brainchild of Glaser, chairman of Berklee's string department. The idea was to assemble sophisticated roots musicians like himself -- banjo revolutionary Tony Trischka, klezmer-jazz clarinetist Andy Statman, and guitar-mandolin whiz John McGann -- to explore the common chords within American roots music and jazz.
The group's first recording, 2001's "Shifting Sands of Time," was a revelation, but it sometimes felt more like an experiment than a band. To address that, Glaser formed a more permanent group, now numbering nine members.
Their new Rounder CD, "This Train," has such a convivial ensemble vibe that its wayfaring eclecticism melts into a warm community of sound. Trischka's rolling banjo rivets tension beneath "Columbus Stockade Blues," and Statman opens "Cluck Old Hen" with a mystical solo poised in a dark, moist ether where country blues meets klezmer.
Glaser's fiddle is the glue, so fluently multilingual that it's hard to catch just when pure bluegrass bursts into cool jazz. Laszlo Gardony's elegant piano makes the most pronounced contextual departure from the folksy mood -- like finding a candelabra on a picnic table -- but his playing is too interesting to be a distraction.
O'Donovan shares vocal chores on the CD with the Mammals' singer-fiddler Ruth Ungar and local rocker Tracy Bonham, who is on tour and was replaced in Saturday's show by Jennifer Kimball.
Glaser cites O'Donovan as a perfect example of the vital new generation of traditional artists. She grew up immersed in folk music: Her father, Brian, hosts the popular WGBH-FM Saturday program "Celtic Sojourn." She has been singing a wide variety of roots music as long as she can remember, and she's a graduate of the New England Conservatory. (She also sings with the local band Crooked Still.)
"Her exposure to traditional music is kind of in vitro," Glaser says. "At a very young age, she was able to sing a wide variety of music at a very high level, with great adherence to the normative demands of each of these styles."
On "This Train," her naturalistic phrasing and effortless control belie the complex structural ideas swirling around her. In an alluring, soft-spoken husk, she sings with complete emotional credibility, whether navigating dense, jazzy slides or haunted old-timey trills.
"It's like running the three-minute mile," Glaser says of this new generation. "For years, it was impossible. Then somebody ran it, and then it became the norm. This is the kind of thing that's happening with young people in these traditional music fields. It's the norm now to be able to play jazz, classical music, bluegrass, Celtic music, all at a high level. Nobody thought like that 30 years ago; it just wasn't seen as possible. I think they call it a paradigm shift."
New digital technologies have helped enormously, making vast catalogs of music available to everyone. But the life's work of music activists such as Glaser and Brian O'Donovan is equally crucial. They grew up in a world where Celtic music was not heard on the radio, and where traditional music was not deemed worthy of study at schools such as Berklee and the New England Conservatory.
Aoife O'Donovan has never known such a world. "Young people like me just grew up immersed in all kinds of music," she says. "Over the last 20, 30 years, people have been playing traditional music in ways it was never played before. I think a lot of people around my age see it as vibrant, very much part of the modern music scene."
Sounding more like the doting professor than the master fiddler, Glaser says: "These people are young, and living on earth for a period of time is always valuable to finding your thing more. They're already amazing musicians, and they'll only grow as time goes on. It'll be a blast to stick around and watch that happen."
(The Wayfaring Strangers play the Somerville Theatre tomorrow at 8 p.m. Tickets are $20-$25. Call 617-876-4275 or visit www.worldmusic.org.)
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.