Where bluegrass meets klezmer

Where bluegrass meets klezmer

Andy Statman Trio will perform at JCC Paramus/CBT

Andy Statman (Larry Eagle)
Andy Statman (Larry Eagle)

The world’s foremost bluegrass klezmer musician will be performing with his trio in Paramus next week.

Admittedly, Andy Statman is one of the few musicians whose compositions, performance, and collaborations include both American and Eastern European Jewish folk music — genres sufficiently distinct that Mr. Statman generally plays a different instrument (mandolin or clarinet) depending on the kind of music he is playing.

But Mr. Statman’s technical skills and compositional creativity put him in the top tier of each genre. He has recorded with both David Bromberg and Rabbi Ben Zion Shenker. He was nominated for a Grammy in the category of “best country instrumental” — for a piece on an album with the decidedly un-Nashville title of “East Flatbush Blues.” Were there a category of best performance of a traditional chassidic niggun, he likely would have been nominated for some of the albums where he collected and interpreted the traditional melodies of Breslov and Chabad.

“I come from a musical family,” he said. “I heard all sorts of different types of music my whole life.”

He began playing in 1960, when a folk music revival was in the air. His older brother was a banjo player in an amateur jug band and brought folk and bluegrass music home. “I got more and more into bluegrass,” Mr. Statman said. “It became the focus of my life.”

That wasn’t a weird choice for a Jewish boy growing up in Jackson Heights, Queens, he said. “When I grew up, they had square dancing in the public schools.” (This was in part due to efforts by noted automaker and anti-Semite Henry Ford, who saw jazz as too black and too Jewish, and wanted to distract listeners in other, whiter directions.) “You heard all this old fiddle music. The old cartoons had different types of American instrumental music.”

Young Andy started out playing the guitar, quickly followed his brother’s lead and learned the banjo, and then switched to the mandolin. “The sound of the mandolin moved me,” he said. “I was intrigued by the sound and the style of playing I heard and I wanted to do it. Plus there were a lot of banjo players and not a lot of mandolin players as well.”

Then his musical interest expanded to include jazz and he learned to play the saxophone.

Jazz was incorporating “all different types of world music, and rekindled my interest in traditional Jewish instrumental music,” he said.

In the 1970s, he studied clarinet with Dave Tarras, who had played in the czar’s army during World War I before coming to the United States and becoming one of New York City’s top Jewish music performers. Mr. Statman went on to produce Mr. Tarras’ last album.

Klezmer became one of Mr. Statman’s calling cards, but it was not his only one. You can see the diversity of his musical interests in the titles of his earliest albums: “Jewish Klezmer Music,” “Flatbush Waltz,” and “Mandolin Abstractions.”

While some of his recordings collect and interpret the songs of others, he has and continues to write new music.

His colleagues in the Andy Statman Trio are bassist Jim Whitney and percussionist Larry Eagle. They have been together for 18 years. “That’s sort of an anomaly these days,” Mr. Statman said. “You rarely have a group of musicians working together for such a long period of time. We understand what to do. It’s like a three-way conversation between the members of the band. Everything is very improvisationally oriented.”

He stresses that the trio is not a klezmer band. “I’ve been fortunate to study with a lot of great people and play a lot of different styles professionally,” he said. “We’re not so concerned with categories.

“Klezmer is just one of the things we do. Half the music we play is Jewish, chasidic melodies and klezmer, mainly on the clarinet. The other half is more jazz, bluegrass, blues, rock-influenced.

“We usually play what we feel like playing in the moment. We try to be receptive with what’s happening in the audience and move along with that. Nothing is really carved in stone. We might open up with a certain one or two songs and then take it from there.”

Who: The Andy Statman Trio

When: 3:30 p.m., Sunday, April 29

Where: JCC of Paramus/Congregation Beth Tikvah, 304 East Midland Ave., Paramus

How much: $40 at the door

Advance ticket info: jccparamus.org

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