Unlikely Music in an Unlikely Place

Nestled in a Tiny Shul, Andy Statman Transforms His Music Again

By Jon Kalish

Published January 23, 2004, issue of January 23, 2004.
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In the 1970s, Andy Statman emerged as a celebrated mandolin player in the “newgrass” movement. In the 1980s, he became a driving force behind the neo-klezmer movement. In the 1990s, he released collections with mandolin-master David Grisman and Itzhak Perlman, and was eventually lauded by The New York Times as “a master of two idioms linked only by their demand for virtuosity and their down-home origins.”

These days, Statman can be found in an unlikely place, playing unlikely music. Over the last four years, the Brooklyn-based clarinet and mandolin virtuoso has played more than 200 times at Congregation Derech Amuno, an eclectic Orthodox shul on Charles Street in Greenwich Village. Many people come expecting to hear him play klezmer or bluegrass, but what they hear at informal performances of the Andy Statman Trio in a long, narrow basement social room often goes way beyond these two genres, featuring chasidic music, blues, jazz and Central Asian music.

“This is the way music should be heard,” said Jason Rosenblatt, a musician from Montreal who has seen Statman in the synagogue four times. “It’s like he’s playing in your own living room.”

Over the next few months, though, the Andy Statman Trio will venture out of the synagogue, first to play at Makor on Manhattan’s Upper West Side on January 29, followed by performances in Berkeley, Los Angeles and San Diego in March. Listeners should prepare to hear a transformed Statman sound.

“My style of playing clarinet and mandolin has completely changed as a result of playing here,” Statman told the Forward this month, soon after completing a three-day recording marathon in the synagogue’s main sanctuary. “There’s an element of kedusha [holiness] playing in the shul. And I like that the audiences here are completely quiet.”

These days Statman — who previously performed jazz versions of chasidic melodies with a quartet of respected jazz musicians —is making music with Jim Whitney, a conservatory-trained bassist with a background in jazz and bluegrass, and Larry Eagle, a percussionist whose resume rivals Statman’s when it comes to exploration of world music. After three solid years of working in this trio, Statman seems to have settled into a new phase of his career and an innovative, entirely personal genre of music. The recordings made at Derech Amuno earlier this month are destined to become two CDs, one of Jewish music on which Statman primarily plays clarinet, and the other of what the musician refers to as his “American stuff” — the bluegrass, blues and jazz played exclusively on mandolin.

“He has what musicians call big ears,” explained Dovid Sears, a longtime friend who is co-producing the two new Statman albums. “He’s interested in everything and ultimately it all finds a place in his own music.”

But, according to Statman’s close friends, his commercial career suffers from his musically adventurous nature. “He’s a forward-looking guy and once he’s played something, he’s on to the next thing,” said Grisman, Statman’s former mandolin teacher and current collaborator. “He’s not going to change his artistic vision so he can have a hit record or better-paying gig. He certainly isn’t going to do something some record producer tells him to do. He’s certainly not looking to make a commercial record.”

Grisman also noted that while he and Statman are both music-business misfits, Statman’s economic situation is made even dicier by the fact that he observes the Sabbath. “Andy’s kind of unmanageable,” Grisman said of Statman, who currently has neither a manager nor a booking agent. “If you take out weekends, you’re not going to really work that much. That’s when the big gigs are. In this business, that’s like giving up 50, 60% of your work — more than that.”

In addition, though Statman has finished recordings for several albums over the last decade, his artistic temperament and record-industry constraints have conspired to keep some of them in the can. They include a second chasidic jazz CD for the small ethnic music label Shanachie that was recorded but never released because Statman was displeased with the mix, as well as “A Shabbos in Nashville,” an album of Sabbath songs sung in Hebrew with bluegrass arrangements for Rounder Records, and a klezmer-chasidic-rock-jazz recording highly-produced by Edward Haber, a radio engineer who has a long association with Statman.

But one CD definitely will make it to listeners: Grisman and Statman currently are finishing a follow-up to their 1995 “Songs of Our Fathers” CD for Grisman’s Acoustic Disc label. Expected to be released this summer, the new recording is all Jewish material but with more of a rock vibe, according to Grisman. Statman says that John Zorn’s Tzadik label is interested in a recording of duets that are Jewish but can also be described as “very wild stuff.”

The new recordings, like the performances at the synagogue on Charles Street, are subject to what by now has become a musical fact of life for Statman and his trio: They never play a given composition the same way twice.

“We’ve developed a very conversational style of playing,” Statman explained, “so we have no arrangements, no sets. We all know the melodies and we just play them and see where they go.”

Jon Kalish is a New York-based newspaper and radio journalist.

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