December 1, 1994
MAN OF DEPTH
Andy Statman's latest affirms life of breaking barriers
By David Royko
Both Andy Statman and Bill Monroe are exceptional bluegrass
mandolinists and composers, and they both wear hats. That just about
sums up their similarities. Their differences begin with the colors of
Monroe's is a white Stetson; the image of it perched atop his head is
the very image of bluegrass music itself. Statman's is a black
Streimel; the image of it perched upon his head is the very image of
the orthodox Jew.
Perhaps to some, the idea of an orthodox Jew excelling in bluegrass
might seem odd, but not to Andy Statman. He has spent his life breaking
musical barriers, not simply for the sake of doing so, or to create
controversy, but because his musical path cuts across many terrains.
Nobody has introduced elements of the jazz avant garde into bluegrass
playing to the degree Statman has. From his early 1970s recordings with
Country Cooking and Breakfast Special, sharp stabs of atonality have
marked his soloing.
In addition, he has also stirred healthy dollops of Eastern European,
Turkish, Armenian, and Jewish seasonings into his sound. Three albums
released by Rounder in the 1980s showcase his eclectic, highly personal
approach to mandolin music--the jazz-based "Flatbush Waltz" (1980), the
aptly titled album of improvised duets with David Grisman, "Mandolin
Abstractions" (1982), and the quasi-bluegrass "Nashville Mornings, New
York Nights" (1986).
It took until now for Statman to release another bluegrass album, and
it is his most orthodox bluegrass musical statement yet. A tribute to
Bill Monroe, "Andy's Ramble" (Rounder) consists of nine original tunes
played by a group that includes Tony Trischka, John Sholle, Kenny
Kosek, and Vassar Clements. During the eight year gap between this and
his previous Rounder album, however, Statman disappeared from the
bluegrass world, and many of his fans wondered if he had left music
In fact, Statman was building a following in his home city of New York,
not as a bluegrass mandolinist, but as one of the premier klezmer
clarinetists and band leaders in town, and spending time with the
pioneering klezmer giant, the late Dave Tarras. Tarras, who held a
position in klezmer music that was equivalent to Bill Monroe's position
in bluegrass, came to consider Statman his protege.
"The first time I saw him, I travelled way out to a very inaccessible
area," says Statman. "He showed me a song, and I asked if I could tape
it, so I could learn all the subtleties. So he said, 'You come to me
for a lesson, and you want I should make a record too?'"
With that quip, an important relationship began, one that Statman
describes as like that of "a grandfather and grandson."
"I would come over and we'd spend hours talking about music, and he'd
play for me," says Statman. "I'd ask him how to do certain things, or
I'd ask him questions about taste, and he'd sit down and show me. We'd
have tea, I'd go with him to the barbershop. He was often ill, so I'd
go out and get medicine for him. We spent alot of time together, which
was great. Here was a guy who went from remembering when they had the
first Edison cylinder type phonographs in the Ukraine to seeing a man
land on the moon. He was in the Czar's army. He lived through an
amazing period in history."
Likewise as a teacher, Tarras was from a different age.
"By and large, he had no real system of teaching," says Statman. "These
days, you see jazz courses that take you from a to b to c to d. With
these old guys, you just sort of jump in and that's it. For lack of a
better word, there's a certain spiritual transference that you can get
just by hanging out with someone, watching their body language."
Tarras was not the only teacher of Statman's who did not fit the
typical "instructor" mold, nor was Tarras the first musical giant to
influence him in a profound way.
"I'd seen David Grisman play, and I contacted him and a life long
friendship evolved out of that," says Statman of an association that
began thirty years ago. "He had almost a teach yourself method, which
was ideal for me. I'd go there, and he would show me a tune. Then he'd
say, 'Listen, I have to leave. Make tape copies of all this stuff, and
lock the door when you leave, and call me when you learn the stuff.' He
would have rare tapes of Bill Monroe shows and Jim & Jesse shows, and
all these old 78s and 45s on tape, stuff that was not available
anywhere else in 1965. So I'd tape for a few hours, go home, slow down
these tapes, learn as much as I could, and after a month or two, I'd
give him a call. So, over two years, I took five, maybe six lessons
like that. By that time, I was getting into other types of music. I was
very interested in jazz, and other things. And David gave me the added
impetus to move off into my own direction."
As the years passed, Statman's musical direction led to his deepening
commitment to Judaism.
"Andy wasn't raised orthodox," says Grisman. "He came to that through
the music. As he got more into the Jewish music, he realized that the
key to it was in the spirituality of it. It's not easy to be an
orthodox Jew. To come to it through the music shows the power of that
Grisman considers his impact on Statman to be among his own major
"Andy has that rare ability that only a few mandolinists have," says
Grisman. "That depth, that pure expression that touches the inner part
of me. Like Bill Monroe, and Dave Apollon. If I'd done nothing but been
Andy's first mandolin teacher, I would feel like I'd made a