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 in a few passionate, organic gusts of music, neither the man nor his inimitable hybrid sound has a very clearly defined "before" or "after."
Statman, one of his generation's premier mandolinists and clarinetists thinks of his compositions as "a spontaneous, American-roots form of very personal, prayerful hasidic music, by way of avant-garde jazz." This small, modest man takes for granted that a performer might embody several worlds in his art, and seems not to recognize that his music, like his story, is extraordinary.
Statman's musical soul 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, young Andy grew up singing hasidic melodies in the afternoon Jewish school his otherwise secular parents sent him to, and listening to show tunes, klezmer, classics —and every other variety of music playing within earshot.
Indeed, Statman the boy 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 country record by Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, Andy's obsession became bluegrass, which he would tune into from West Virginia via shortwave radio. He sent away for a method booklet, and picked up the guitar and banjo on his own. In a number of years, his fervent fingers would walk this boy—briefly —to Nashville.
A possessed Statman found mandolin master David Grisman in 1965, in a Greenwich Village teeming with young musicians at the heart of the resurgence of folk culture, and asked him for lessons. Grisman, with whom he would record and coproduce "Songs of Our Fathers" 30 years later, says that Statman was the best student he has ever had. "The kid just gobbled up everything," says Grisman, 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."
Statman's virtuosity and passion led the teenager into a progressive bluegrass band and into the company, as a session man, of folk superheroes like Bob Dylan and other celebrated performers, such as folkie David Bromberg and bluegrass fiddler Vassar Clements.
"I'm very lucky," says Statrnan. "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. After feeling a tug away from bluegrass during his late teens, Statman, stirred at the time by John Coltrane's experimental jazz, found himself compelled to master the saxophone.
But his first lesson, as he tells it, was in fact 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. Statman's sponge-like qualities 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, Statman relates, he was at the time attracted to all things ethnic —Balkan, Native American, Japanese, Latin and African root music, and at one point even recorded with the likes of Jerry Garcia. In the spirit of Jung, it 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 Statman, "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."
Statman’s hunt for his heritage progressed slowly, met by small, incremental changes in his everyday practice— laying of tefillin and a prayer service here, a traditional Sabbath there. And there were those prayers again, those nigunim from his childhood.
It all made Statman 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 kid at home? He took it as a personal challenge: Unearthing this musical tradition - what we now call klezmer - would help him to unearth his own roots.
So, true to character, the young apprentice, now in his early 20s, went off to seek another master. The mentor he found was no less than klezmer clarinetist Dave Tarras, "the most successful immigrant-era Yiddish musician," in the words of music writer Seth Rogovoy.
While Statman the musician was blowing into the instrument, Statman the Jew was inhaling his history, rejoicing in the sound and the feel of his self-discovery as a person with a rich ancestral past. He felt revived—as did Tarras, who was rediscovered and recorded once again. Tarras (who died in 1989) later bequeathed his clarinets to his greatest protégé, and made him the next link in the chain.
And so Statman became known primarily as one of the key klezmer revivalists of the 70s and early 80s, the musicians who launched a great wave to reclaim the music of the Old World that had been fumigated away 50 years before at Ellis Island.
To Statman, the alt-neu klezmer music was about much more than reclaiming cultural roots. It was about ecstatic devotion, recreating the transcendent prayer of the founder of hasidism, the Ba'al Shem Tov —prayer he was engaging in more and more regularly as he grew closer to Orthodox life. 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, Statman 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 became religious—today he lives as a conspicuously devout (white shirt, black pants and velvet yarmulke) "fusion" hasid —he didn't feel the need to play the music anymore. By the time his roots were both deeply planted and fully exposed, Statman felt pulled back toward jazz and the ways that it offers to indulge in contemplative, wandering, deep-space spirituality.
Since its divergence from mainstream klezmer in the mid-90s, Statman'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" (which sold over 60,000 copies without advertising) with Grisman, who says that the emotional Jewish connection he feels with Statman ("my rabbi") is as strong as the bond he feels with him musically, and the classical klezmer sensation "In the Fiddler's House," with Itzhak Perlman, in 1996. He's also done some more bluegrass inspired work—like "Andy's Ramble" in ‘94, a klezmer-overlaid progression over his previous mandolin work.
It's a journey Statman says he now revisits with his trio when they perform: "We're creating an experience between the audience and us," Statman now performs his distinctive, unconstrained meditations on jazz, klezmer, bluegrass and the human soul with bassist Jim Whitney and percussionist Larry Eagle, frequently at the Charles Street Shul, in the West Village. "At a certain point, we're just talking, just having a three-way conversation."
This "conversation" changes each time they have it on stage, no melody sounding quite the same as it did before, and none bearing the definitive stamp of the genre that spawned it. A totally unselfconscious performer, Statman does not mind that many audiences leave slightly befuddled as to what kind of music, exactly, they have just heard.
It is unabashedly American music, Statman would tell them, proud of his U.S. roots, and the spirit of individuality, creativity and compassion that country embodies. And it's jazz, he'd say, on its lonely search for the spirit of lost worlds. Or it's deeply religious hasidic prayer, he'd explain in his kind, soft voice, intended to embrace my brothers and bring them back into the fold. It's deeply Jewish because I am, and it's honest, because I am. It's all of those things, because, although they may seem worlds apart to you, "they all come together in me."
"If you're in touch with your Judaism," Statman is saying, his voice cracking, "you experience things..." He is misty by now, and it is clear that this is a man who still and always speaks, and plays - whatever it is he's playing—from the very roots of his soul.