The Charles Street Synagogue occupies a narrow, slightly ramshackle brownstone in the West Village. Inside the temple’s low-ceilinged main room, where the Andy Statman Trio has had a monthly gig for the past eighteen years, a long folding table covered with a plastic cloth holds halvah, currants, and macademia nuts, a perfect Jewish tableau completed by a box of Manischewitz marble cake mix.
The band is mid-flight: Jim Whitney, thin and elegant on stand-up bass, Larry Eagle, spry and bespectacled on a small drum kit, and Andy, wearing white shirt, black pants, and yarmulkah, and cradling a Kimball mandolin. They are playing a bluegrass tune, “Pretty Little Gal,” the mandolin caressing the plaintive melody. Later in the set, Andy switches to clarinet, as the band plays a Jewish liturgical number, “Shabbos Nigun,” the keening, searching phrases filing the air with shades of both Chasidic filigree and Coltrane-like force. It’s a highly unusual combination, one that combines the swaying prayers of klezmer, the high lonesome sound of bluegrass, and the freedom and drive of jazz. Working musicians who operate in this manner have something in common with what in Africa would be called a griot: a compiler and communicator of traditions, a necessary link to the spiritual life embedded in and embodied by music.
The praise lavished on Statman—The New Yorker has called him “a musician’s musician,” and the Times has lauded his “modern American music with ancient mysteries at its core”—stands in contrast to his modesty. “It’s just what I do,” he says, seated at the dining room table of his house in Flatbush. “And I’ve been doing it a long time.” Statman comes from a prominent musical lineage, with a wealth of cantors going back to the 1700s in Lithuania and Poland. Once family members began to emigrate to America, a number of them gained renown as classical musicians and vaudeville players.
But the most direct influence on Statman as a teenager growing up in Bayside, Queens, was his older brother, Jimmy. “He’s about eight years older than me. He played in a jug band, they used to rehearse in the house, and he would take me down to the hootenannies they would have at Hunter and other colleges. I’d see the bluegrass bands perform and I knew that’s what I wanted to do.” In the musical ferment of the late ’60s, influences were coming from every direction. “I found that bluegrass musicians were also listening to jazz players like Joe Venuti and Django Reinhart, so I started listening to that stuff. I was also listening to Mingus and Monk and Bird. I turned on the radio one afternoon and they were playing a record called Albert Ayler in Greenwich Village. It really spoke to me.”
Statman decided to branch out from playing string instruments. “I wanted to learn saxophone, and a friend of mine suggested a musician he worked with named Richard Grando. So I became his student. Richard got me started listening to music from all over the world, whether it was Bulgarian or Korean music or whatever. I was listening to everything.” Statman first made his living playing in a band called Country Cooking, then went on the road with David Bromberg, and wound up in an eclectic group called Breakfast Special. “That band was touring constantly. We were doing everything from bluegrass to rock ‘n’ roll to zydeco.”
Adding one more wrinkle to Statman’s story, he is an observant Orthodox Jew. This seemed, at first blush, to fit the notion of music as a pursuit of the divine, though I found it is a more complex equation. He is both a carrier of singular traditions and a melder of disparate ones. The synthesis he achieves derives from a deep dive into different cultures: both the one that drew him to the music of the Kentucky hills, and the one he grew up with and returned to in Brooklyn.
When Statman came back to New York around 1980, he took the turn toward Orthodox Judaism. At the same time, he began to take a more serious interest in klezmer. “I had heard this music, I used to dance to it at family get-togethers and whatnot. But I felt that, outside of this very specific context, there’s no one playing this music. So I looked up the clarinetist Dave Tarras, probably the greatest klezmer player still going at the time. He was living in Carnarsie and he couldn’t believe anyone would be interested in this stuff. At first I was just transcribing his work for saxophone. But then he gave me his clarinet and I started playing it. I began to take it very seriously. I figured, this is part of my heritage, and I just wanted to keep it alive for my own sake.”
Statman’s relationship with Tarras was as much focused on his thoughts and values as on his playing. “I’d go over there, we’d have some tea, and talk maybe for an hour. Then he’d take out his clarinet and play for me. Dave would make certain body motions or look at me a certain way to emphasize things, and I’d get more out of that than anything. He would make certain hand gestures when he was playing especially poignant passages; they expressed so much emotion. When I became religious and started praying in shuls, I realized these were the identical gestures used by the cantors. Dave had come from a Chasidic family. Klezmer, in its essence—the really Jewish recordings that have the best feeling—comes out of Chasidic music. It’s just religious music played instrumentally. It was set up to fulfill a mitzvah, whether as tunes to bring you close to God or to help you rejoice with the bride and groom. That music really brought me further into Judaism very quickly.”
But Statman wasn’t content to play klezmer exactly as he had learned it from Tarras. “I always had this idea of combining klezmer with modal music, the kind you hear in some Miles Davis and John Coltrane recordings. I always thought the stacked fourths approach of [pianist] McCoy Tyner would be a perfect fit for this music. I wound up doing this klezmer/jazz record called Between Heaven and Earth where we tried that approach, and the thing was like magic.” The record was named one of the top ten of the year by the New York Times and sparked a major revival in klezmer.
Despite his intense dedication and formidable accomplishments, the financial rewards for Statman’s playing have been slight. Leaving our interview, I wondered about all the musicians who play for pure love, the promise of glory. If we have any hope of finding common ground as people, I thought, we are going to need them. Are we capable of finding a way to sustain them? Or will the languages they speak die out, despite the thick forest of material made available by the Internet? As for Statman, his goals are at once more limited and more far-reaching. “Before I play a gig,” he says, “I say a prayer that the music will unite people, uplift people, and bring people close to God. And that’s it.”
Scott Gutterman has written about art and music for Artforum, GQ, The New Yorker, Vogue, and other publications. His most recent book is Sunlight on the River: Poems about Paintings, Paintings about Poems (Prestel, 2015). He is deputy director of Neue Galerie New York and lives in Brooklyn.