HAD THERE BEEN a planetarium in 19th-century Galicia, or a kosher deli in Depression-era Kentucky, Andy Statman's music might have been playing in the background. Meandering through time, geography and culture, the man and his inimitable hybrid sound move freely among the before, the after, and the present.
Andy Statman, one of his generation's premier mandolinists and clarinetists, thinks of his compositions and performances as "spontaneous
American-roots music and personal, prayerful hasidic music, by way of avant-garde jazz." This modest man takes for granted that a performer
might embody several worlds in his art, and seems humbled by the fact that his music, like his story, is extraordinary.
Andy's musical journey began early, when he was a child in Queens, not far from his current home in Flatbush, Brooklyn. Born into a family with a long line of cantors and some well-known professional musicians in the family tree, Andy grew up singing hasidic melodies in the afternoon Jewish school his parents sent him to, and listening to show tunes, klezmer, and classics - along with every other variety of music playing within earshot.
Indeed, young Andy had ravenous ears, absorbing the early sounds of rock and roll and the beginnings of the folk revival. But after his brother brought home a vintage record by Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, Andy became obsessed with bluegrass, which he would tune into via shortwave radio from West Virginia. He sent away for a method booklet, and picked up the guitar and banjo on his own. Eventually he would discover his love for the mandolin.
Andy Statman and David Grisman
In 1965, Andy found mandolin master David Grisman, in a Greenwich Village teeming with young musicians at the heart of the resurgence of folk culture, and asked him for lessons. David, with whom Andy would record and coproduce "Songs of Our Fathers" 30 years later, says that Andy was the best student he ever had. "The kid just gobbled up everything," says David, himself a Grammy-nominated bluegrass-folkjazz musician. "I always tell people that if the only thing I ever did was give Andy his first mandolin lesson, it would have been a life well spent." Andy's virtuosity and passion led him into the progressive bluegrass band Breakfast Special, and into the company, as a session man, of folk superhero Bob Dylan and other celebrated performers such as folkie David Bromberg, bluegrass fiddler Vassar Clements, and roots-rock musician Jerry Garcia.
Andy Statman and Bela Fleck
"I'm very lucky," says Andy. "The guys I've studied with have treated me as an apprentice in the Old World sense. I'm probably from the last generation that had a chance to learn from the greats."
In fact, his next significant mentorship after Grisman, with little-known jazz-saxophone virtuoso Richard Grando, turned out to be life-changing. Feeling a tug away from bluegrass during his late teens, Andy found himself compelled to master the saxophone, stirred by John Coltrane and the experimental jazz happening at the time. But his first lesson, as he tells it, was actually a discussion, one about whether or not God exists. Grando was something of a renaissance man, as interested in spirituality, anthropology and psychology as he was in music. Andy's zest for learning did not stop at his ears; he started soaking up Native American mysticism, the I Ching, and Jung's theories on synchronicity and the "miracles in coincidence." Musically, Andy was attracted to all things ethnic, in addition to jazz. In the spirit of Jung, his was a kind of quest for what the collective unconscious might sound like.
That's when lightning struck: "I realized that I was born a Jew," says Andy, "and that it wasn't by accident. I needed to find my own spirituality in my music, and in my life my own roots, not someone else's."
Andy Statman and Ricky Skaggs
Andy's search for his heritage progressed slowly, met by small, incremental changes in his everyday practice - the laying of tefillin, a prayer service here, a traditional Sabbath there. And there were those nigunim from his childhood. It all made Andy wonder: Why was no one playing (professionally, at least) the instrumental music to accompany this living hasidic tradition? Whatever happened to that great Old World Jewish music he had heard as a boy? He took it as a personal challenge to unearth this musical tradition, what we now call klezmer. This would ultimately help him unearth his own roots.
True to character, the young apprentice, now in his early 20s, set off to seek another master. The mentor he found was no less than master klezmer clarinetist Dave Tarras, "the most successful immigrant-era Yiddish musician," in the words of music writer Seth Rogovoy.
While Andy Statman the musician was playing the clarinet, Andy Statman the Jew was discovering his history, rejoicing in the sound and the feel of being a person with a rich ancestral past. He felt revived - as did Tarras - who himself was rediscovered and recorded once again. Tarras (who died in 1989) bequeathed his clarinets to Andy, his greatest protégé - and made him the next link in the chain. Hence Andy became known primarily as one of the key klezmer revivalists of the 70s and early 80s, among the musicians who launched a great wave to reclaim the music of the Old World.
To Andy, klezmer music ultimately became more than reclaiming cultural roots. It was about ecstatic devotion and recreating transcendent prayer, the Ba'al Shem Tov - which he was engaging in more regularly as he grew closer to Orthodox life. David Grisman, who is himself Jewish, notes that "it was the music that led Andy into observance. And then he got deeper into the music by going deeper into its source." In fact, Andy says that he began to see klezmer as a living form of music mostly in the context of a religious life. But the irony here is rich: Once he fully embraced religion - today he lives as a conspicuously devout modern Orthodox hasid (white shirt, black pants and velvet yarmulke) - he no longer felt the need to play klezmer music. By the time his roots were both deeply planted and fully exposed, Andy pulled back toward jazz and its exploration of contemplative, wandering, deep-space spirituality.
Jim Whitney, Andy Statman, Itzhak Perlman
Since his divergence from mainstream klezmer in the mid-90s, Andy's journey has taken him, once again, to new places he's somehow been before. He's recorded a number of traditional Jewish-inspired albums, including "Songs of Our Fathers" with David Grisman, who says that the emotional Jewish connection he feels with Andy ("my rabbi") is as strong as the bond he feels with him musically. In addition, there is his classical klezmer sensation "In the Fiddler's House", which he recorded with Itzhak Perlman in 1996. He has also produced more bluegrass inspired work, including the acclaimed "Andy's Ramble" in 1994.
It's a journey Andy says he now revisits with his trio each time they perform: "We're creating an experience between the audience and us," with their unconstrained meditations on hasidic music and groove-driven explorations of American-roots music. His collaborators include bassist Jim Whitney and percussionist Larry Eagle. They perform frequently at the Charles Street Synagogue, in the West Village. "At a certain point, we're just talking, just having a three-way conversation."
Jim Whitney, Larry Eagle,
This "conversation" changes each time they take the stage, with no melody sounding quite the same as it did before. A totally unselfconscious performer, Andy Statman leaves audiences elated and at times mystified, having experienced a musical performance unlike any other.
It's unabashedly American music, Andy says, proud of his U.S. roots, and the spirit of individuality, creativity and compassion it embodies. Or it's deeply religious hasidic prayer, intended to embrace his Jewish heritage, he explains in a soft voice. And it's jazz, he'd say, on its lonely search for the spirit of lost worlds. It's all of those things, because, although they may seem worlds apart, "They all come together in me. If you're in touch with your Judaism," Andy says, his voice cracking, "you experience things..." He is misty by now, and it is clear that this is a man who always speaks and plays from the very roots of his soul.
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