Andy Statman is a practicing Orthodox Jew in Brooklyn and a top-notch clarinetist who has spent the past three decades playing klezmer — not, as some have, for irony or wedding gigs or nostalgia, but rather to explore highly personal paths of connection with the music’s spiritual roots. A new CD, “Avodas Halevi: Archival Recordings From the 1990s,” released on John Zorn’s Tzadik label, captures Statman at a fascinating transitional period in his career, when he was moving from traditional renditions of Jewish music — a practice that he almost single-handedly revived in the 1980s — to a style of fusing Hasidic chants with the modern rapture of late John Coltrane or Albert Ayler.
There is nothing gimmicky about this brand of fusion. Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” is explicitly spiritual, a chant to God; Ayler’s most celebrated album, “Spiritual Unity,” is nothing if not incantatory. And so it seems perfectly natural that “Modzitzer Deveykus Niggun” — a song composed by Rabbi Yisrael Don Taub, the present-day Modzitzer Rebbe — starts off with clanging piano chords right out of McCoy Tyner, swirling cymbal crashes and drum rolls reminiscent of Elvin Jones and, after a few bars, Statman entering with swooping improvisations on his clarinet, sounding like Coltrane on soprano sax, before settling into the haunting melody, the niggun.
More stirring still is the disc’s opener, “Reb Nachman’s Deveykus Niggun,” a riveting, soulful dirge that Rabbi Nachman of Breslav composed in the early 1800s, arranged here as a duet with drummer Bob Weiner in the manner of a field march but more intense than any martial music I’ve heard — a march to heaven, maybe. Statman revisited Reb Nachman’s niggun on his 1997 album, “Between Heaven & Earth: Music of the Jewish Mystics” (on the Shanachie label), which marked the culmination of the jazz-Hasidic fusion that he began to conceive during the sessions here. According to that album’s fine liner notes by Statman’s co-producer, David Sears, Rabbi Nachman “taught that attachment to God (deveykus) is primarily attained through melody. Among Hasidim, deveykus niggunim are melodies which serve as vehicles for mystical communion.”
By that standard, the 1997 version — which has Statman and Weiner playing with established jazz and bluegrass musicians such as Kenny Werner, Harvie Swartz, Bela Fleck and David Grisman — is a more polished affair, both in production and in performance. But the earlier, previously unreleased take (most of the tracks on “Avodas Halevi,” including this one, were recorded in 1992) conveys a passion at once earthier and more ethereal. The same can be said of another Nachman melody on “Avodas,” “Breslever Lecha Dodi” (“Come, My Beloved”), which Statman and pianist Mitchell Schechter treat as both a wistful ballad and a spiritual hymn.
Those who know Statman only from his earlier work (the 1977 “Jewish Klezmer Music” or the 1995 “Songs of Our Fathers”), or from his more recent releases (1998’s “The Hidden Light” or last year’s “Wisdom, Understanding, Knowledge”) may find this disc’s ferocity a bit unsettling, at least initially. Statman started out as a bluegrass musician — he helped spearhead that revival as well, in the 1970s — and his first immersion into klezmer drew on the many links between those two genres. The results were head shaking but not soul stirring. On his newer CDs, some on Sony Classics, he has reverted to a more traditional approach. They retain the gravitas of his jazz-infused sessions — they’re closer in feeling to “Avodas” or “Between Heaven & Earth”— but they’re more quietly meditative, less fiery and improvisational.
Still, fans of his statelier albums should give “Avodas Halevi” a shot. It is no less valid as a statement of heritage and, at least to my taste, more riveting as an adventure in music.
The only weak points on “Avodas” are two duet tracks, titled “Charles and West 4th” and “Lost Aisles of KDS,” which Statman recorded with drummer Bob Meyer much later, in 1998. These aren’t so much transitional works as stabs at “chasing the Trane” — extending the influence of John Coltrane — an extra few stations. Recorded nearly two years after Statman made “Between Heaven & Earth,” they are to that album as “Interstellar Space” (Coltrane’s session of frantically free duets with drummer Rashied Ali) is to “A Love Supreme.” They don’t really fit in with the rest of the album; they’re also too long and repetitive.
Yet the disc’s other 10 tracks are transporting — and they swing. They were never meant to be released as an album. They were experiments, set down late at night in — as the liner notes tell us — a small studio overlooking the Brooklyn Bridge. All the more remarkable, then, that 13 years later they still sparkle as such radiant gems.
Fred Kaplan is a columnist for Slate and a jazz critic for The Absolute Sound.