It would be easy to get sucked in by the curiosity factor of Andy Statman and just stop there. This New York Jew was born into a family of cantors back in 1945, and although he grew up singing Hasidic melodies as a teenager he got hooked on bluegrass via a Flatt & Scruggs album. His early education came from listening to a West Virginia radio station on shortwave, but eventually he met mandolinist David Grisman—the soon-to-be prog-bluegrass heavy who made that annoying Old and in the Way record with Jerry Garcia in 1975—who became his primary teacher. But Statman had wide-open ears, and while his mandolin playing was good to land plenty of session work, his interest in jazz later led him to pick up the clarinet, through which he began exploring his own Jewishness. Before long he was studying with klezmer legend Dave Tarras, and by the late 70s Statman himself was prime mover in the NYC klez revival, although much of his work has favored delicate, heartbreaking balladry over the genre’s more raucous, dance-oriented strains.
Since then he’s teetered between these two unlikely poles, but as weird as that may sound, his playing on both instruments has made sense of it all. In fact, he’s found fascinating ways to bring his mandolin playing to bear on klezmer. Last year he released three terrific albums, including New Shabbos Waltz (Acoustic Disc), a survey of famous Jewish tunes recorded with his old mentor Grisman (also a Jew). Statman sticks mainly to clarinet, but the tenderness of the twin mandolin performances by him and his partner are astonishing; deeply lyric, gentle, and free of any idiomatic bluegrass stains.
More recently he released two albums highlighting his duality, both of them ecorded with his long-running trio and released on his own Shefa imprint. Awakening From Above, a collection of Hassidic songs with Statman playing clarinet on all but one of the 14 tracks. Bassist Jim Whitney and drummer Larry Eagle provide impressively sparse support—a little rhythmic push here, some harmonic limning there—allowing the leader to improvise on the mostly sorrowful themes with astounding elasticity and depth, each trill, sob, and snort conveying startlingly voice-like emotions. The second album, East Flatbush Blues, is a bluegrass collection, with Statman using mandolin on all but one of the 12 tracks. His band can inject fierce swinging blues into some of the material, such as Bill Monroe’s “Bluegrass Stomp,” and in general the music is a bit more “jazzy” than the kind of traditional offerings we expect from folks like Del McCoury and Ralph Stanley these days. In his rhythms, harmonics, and phrasing, Statman isn’t held by convention, even if he makes it plain that he’s got the fundamentals down pat.
Statman makes a rare local appearance Monday night, February 5, at Martyrs. Unfortunately, he won’t be with his working trio; he’ll instead be joined by the local trio Lucky Break, a group of bluegrass vets. Of course, that also means that Statman will be sticking to the mandolin and playing bluegrass all evening, not that there’s anything wrong with that. Personally I prefer to hear him on the clarinet, but beggars can’t be choosers.