Andy Statman explores the nigun

Andy Statman

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., November 18, 2001) – There is a long, venerable tradition of worship music leaving the confines of the sanctuary for the contours of the concert hall. At some level this journey of sacred to secular is at the root of classical music; in more recent times, gospel music and its offshoots can be heard as often in commercial nightclubs and arenas as in churches.

The same phenomenon is found in Jewish music, where the great European cantors began performing recitals outside of synagogues in opera houses and other non-sacred spaces over a hundred years ago.

In some way, Andy Statman’s current program fits into this tradition. The clarinetist, mandolinist and klezmer revival pioneer has recently redirected his focus of interest away from old-time Yiddish dance music toward the nigun, the kernel of melody that makes up the raw material for Hasidic worship -- particularly a kind of ecstatic chant. Instead of the sensual, raucous dance melodies of the klezmer freylekh, Statman is interested in exploring the melodic and mystical potentials of this relatively unknown genre of music.

It’s a risky business, bringing this highly specialized, little-known and often misunderstood bit of musical marginalia to the concert stage. But on Saturday night at the Spencertown Academy, in a duet recital with bassist Jim Whitney, Statman succeeded in showcasing the beauty and variety – and, perhaps for some, the innate spirituality – of this fascinating musical genre.

It helps that the nigun is in some way the DNA of the more familiar klezmer for which Statman is best known. If the tunes he played lacked the visceral impact or rhythmic punch that people associate with Jewish celebration music, they shared the poignant, mournful aspect – in large part derived from their modal strategies -- and the Yiddish tinge that so strongly characterizes klezmer.

Like the klezmer dance tunes they spawned, they also boast strong, immediately recognizable melodies, and Statman never strayed too far from these melodies, even when he was improvising above and around them. In fact, that someone could improvise within such strict, self-imposed parameters of harmony, melody and mode was a testimony both to the strength of the melodies themselves and to Statman’s fertile imagination and his deeply profound connection to their spiritual content.

This connection was as much evident in his playing as it was in his presentation of the tunes, most of which he introduced with brief anecdotes about their spiritual, geographic and historical origins. Most of these melodies were written by Hasidic spiritual leaders called rebbes, and many of them are still passed down orally. In several cases, Statman gave credit to contemporary rebbes not only for composing the tunes, but acknowledging their permission in allowing him to play and record them, so new and tightly held are they in connection with their particular religious communities.

While Statman’s playing was very much in the cantorial style, he avoided overuse of the characteristic ornaments of klezmer – the achy, bent and cutoff notes -- that in lesser hands turn the music schmaltzy. Rather, Statman relied on the linear melodies themselves, as well as breath control, trills and grace notes, to personalize these nuggets of spiritual and musical beauty. Some were light and airy, others were dark and even a bit ominous, all bore a share of the awe with which they are invested by their composers and intended audience.

Most musicians use jazz-based improvisation to stray from the melody. The genius of Andy Statman is how he uses improvisation to dig deeper into the melody, to explore and reveal is very soul and essence. It’s a strategy he developed through playing Hasidic nigunim used to induce a state of ecstatic transcendence.

Statman also turned his attention to American folk music for a few numbers. In the great tradition of Hasidic rebbes who took Russian and Polish folk songs and turned them into nigunim, thus unleashing the holy sparks that lay hidden within them, Statman is applying the same technique to the old-time and bluegrass melodies he came up playing in the 1960s and '70s, thus refiguring them as a new kind of soul music.

[This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on November 20, 2001. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2001. All rights reserved.]

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