Andy Statman's spiritual roots music

Andy Statman

by Seth Rogovoy

(SPENCERTOWN, N.Y., November 12, 2001) – Andy Statman has always been a roots-oriented musician. In the 1960s, he established his reputation as one of the best mandolinists in bluegrass. Then, in search of something deeper and inspired by musicians like John Coltrane and Albert Ayler, he picked up the saxophone and began playing jazz.

From there, it was a short leap to the clarinet, his main instrument since the mid-1970s, and a different kind of roots music called klezmer. Like bluegrass and jazz, klezmer had a deep, rich history in a particular culture going back decades in America, and even further back to Eastern Europe, where it provided the rhythms for dancing and spiritual reflection at Jewish weddings. But for Statman, klezmer melodies spoke to him on a deeper level than any music he’d heard before.

In a recent phone interview from Brooklyn, Statman – who performs on Saturday night at 8 at the Spencertown Academy (518-392-3693) -- talked about his evolution from a musical confrere of David Grisman and David Bromberg to an acolyte of Dave Tarras, the greatest klezmer clarinetist of the immigrant era.

As it turns out, the seeds for Statman’s career as a pioneer of the klezmer revival were planted in childhood. “I heard klezmer as a child, growing up in my house, although it wasn’t even called klezmer back then,” said Statman. “There wasn’t even a name for it, but we used to play some of these records at family occasions and dance to them.”

Even more significant, perhaps, Statman remembers in religious school hearing Hasidic chants called nigunim, wordless vocal melodies used to conjure up states of spiritual transcendence. Little did young Statman know that four decades later, these very same nigunim would constitute the primary source material upon which he would build a body of sophisticated, experimental, jazz-influenced musical improvisations.

But at the time, Statman’s ears were tuned to the sounds coming from outside his house, which included Fifties rock and roll and roots-music of the folk revival. One album in particular struck his fancy -- a record given to him by his brother by the famous bluegrass duo of Earl Flatt and Lester Scruggs. The sounds of bluegrass fed a young New York City boy’s fantasies of life in the country. Late at night, his ear would be pressed up against the speaker of a short-wave radio, tuning in broadcasts of country and western music from around the nation.

While still a teen-ager, Statman began riding the subway to Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, ground-zero of the folk revival, where the likes of Bill Keith, Marty Cutler, John Herald and David Grisman could be found hanging out and jamming, bluegrass-style. Grisman, a few years his senior and, like Statman, a middle-class Jew from the New York metropolitan area, became his mentor.

“He was living the bluegrass life down in the Village on Thompson Street,” recalls Statman. “He was playing with Red Allen, and Frank Wakefield was living with him for awhile. He had bluegrass pictures all over the house and tons of tapes of radio shows from the Forties with Bill Monroe playing with Flatt and Scruggs. He’d show me some positions on the mandolin and say, ‘Call me when you learn these.’”

Statman’s talent as a bluegrass player soon exceeded his affection for the music, however. He felt limited by bluegrass as an instrumentalist. The music wasn’t satisfying him on the deepest level. “Emotionally, the heavier things expressed in bluegrass were done vocally and not instrumentally – although there’s a great instrumental tradition,” he says. “Plus, I wasn’t from the South.” It’s easy to see how klezmer music would eventually fill these deeper needs.

After a period playing saxophone and exploring the spiritually-oriented modern jazz experiments of Albert Ayler and John Coltrane, Statman’s generalized sense of seeking led him back to his roots. “It dawned on me that if I’m looking for a spiritual path, I’m born Jewish, it was handed to me, so this is something I should explore,” he said. Thus began Statman’s two-tiered exploration of his roots. His spiritual investigation took him to the Hasidic enclave of Brooklyn, where he began the slow process of becoming a Torah-observant Jew. Musically, he didn’t have to go any further than his parent’s house, where he began rummaging through their collection of old 78s, and found plenty of klezmer albums. These proved to be the wellsprings of his next creative phase.

Statman had heard that Dave Tarras was still alive and that he had recently moved to a neighborhood near Statman’s own in Brooklyn. He found out where Tarras lived and, mandolin in hand, he knocked on his door one day, introduced himself, and began playing Tarras’s songs for him on mandolin.

Thus began one of the iconic, intergenerational relationships of the klezmer revival. Tarras took on Statman as his protégé, deeding to him several of his rare, Albert-style clarinets, and anointing him as a kind of successor. Statman became one of the pioneers of the revival, recording early albums like “Jewish Klezmer Music” and “Klezmer Suite.” Statman continued to perform klezmer and inspire others throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, and he took part in Itzhak Perlman’s famed “In the Fiddler’s House” PBS documentary and subsequent series of concert tours and recordings.

But just as Statman’s muse didn’t allow him to simply become a modern-day version of Bill Monroe in bluegrass, nor was he satisfied in becoming a latter-day Dave Tarras. He attributes his desire to go deeper into the roots of klezmer to his spiritual awakening, finding the deepest musical meaning in the melodies’ roots in Hasidic nigunim.

But neither did he desire merely to play these melodies as commonly sung. For Statman, the jazzman’s improvisational approach was perfectly suited to the Hasid’s meditative mysticism, and by musically exploring the melodic foundation of the nigunim, Statman found himself best able to reconcile his musical and spiritual inclinations.

Statman said, “A lot of the klezmer melodies people play are Hasidic melodies. As the music became more and more secularized it began losing a lot of the depth and just losing a lot of what its roots were, to the point where it just became bulgars or certain types of dance tunes…. Not that the dance music is light, you can have the dance music, particularly the Hasidic dance music, set up to induce a trance-like state as well.”

The results of Statman’s spiritual-musical explorations were first heard on Statman’s 1997 recording, “Between Heaven and Earth: Music of the Jewish Mystics,” which was followed in 1998 by “The Hidden Light.”

This is the music that Statman is planning to play on Saturday, accompanied by bassist Jim Whitney. “We take a very expansive, roots-oriented approach,” said Statman. “We try mainly to relate to the tunes melodically, and really deal with the power of the melodies and the phrasing and improvise based on the melodic structure.”

Statman said his goal in performing is to “try to create an experience for all of us to have to get to another place through the music. The energy of the audience has a tremendous effect on the musician. If it’s working the right way you can really use that, use their focusing energy on you as a way of transcending everything and uplifting everyone. That’s something we’re going for.”

Statman adds as an aside, “The bottom line is I’m there to play great music and have a good time.”

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on November 16, 2001. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2001. All rights reserved.]

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