ON THE TOWN
Statman's musicianship links klezmer, bluegrass
By David Royko
Special to the Tribune
Published January 26, 2007
They seem about as distant as American musical cousins can be: bluegrass, with its roots in Kentucky and Southeastern rural America, and klezmer, with its foundation in Eastern European Jewish life and turn-of-the-century urban American pop, jazz and theater.
But in his drive to go beyond the notes to the deeper messages in the music he plays, mandolinist/clarinetist Andy Statman manages to bridge these sonic worlds.
Statman, who will be play a rare series of Chicago-area bluegrass concerts over the next few weeks, is a musical patriarch who is a master of bluegrass and klezmer, and sees parallels that might be invisible on the surface.
"What I find," says Statman, "particularly with some of the [bluegrass] fiddle tunes that I play [on mandolin], is that it gets into this very deep, ecstatic type of experience, which you can have in some of the Jewish music as well."
Statman's usual band is a trio with bass and drums, a format that allows him to venture far from klezmer and bluegrass standards as he seeks, through extensive improvisation, a transcendent state, musical and otherwise.
"I'm looking to go on a journey with the music," says Statman, "and aside from uncovering new musical territory, I'm really looking to uncover new emotional and spiritual territory. ... [Music] unlocks part of ourselves that we're not usually in touch with, and the deeper you get into it, the richer and more profound it becomes."
Brooklyn native Statman, 56, is a protege of two music pioneers--progressive bluegrass mandolinist David Grisman and klezmer clarinet giant Dave Tarras. Statman's fans from one genre are sometimes unaware that he has a legion of equally rabid fans from another musical world.
"Andy Statman is one of the greatest mandolinists of this--or any--era, and has been a hero of mine for decades," says jazz mandolinist Don Stiernberg. "He thinks at the speed of light and can play whatever he thinks of. As an improviser he is fearless, and his musical vocabulary has no limitations. Andy really pulls everything together--technical mastery in service of spirit-driven music, highly personal musical statements stemming from thorough knowledge of traditions. Everyone should hear him play, not just those interested in the mandolin or various styles of music he's associated with. There's no one else like him and his depth and unique approach are something to behold."
On his mini-tour, bluegrass fans will hear him play with Jerry Wicentowski, a singer and guitarist who grew up with Statman in New York and now lives in Wisconsin. The two have played together since they were in their teens, and it was Wicentowski who facilitated bringing Statman to town for these shows, reaffirming a musical bond forged more than 40 years ago.
"My playing . . . has co-existed with my career as a certified financial planner here in Milwaukee, where I've lived for the last 30 years," says Wicentowski. "In the last 15 years, there have been a number of opportunities to play with Andy. Like all other giants, he stands on others' shoulders, but has created something that is uniquely his own that touches me to the core."
The feelings are mutual.
"A great deal of my roots [are] in Bill Monroe, the Osborne Brothers, Jimmy Martin, Jim and Jesse, the Stanley Brothers, Red Allen," says Statman. "I still feel that music very deeply. With Jerry, I get a chance to explore those feelings on those terms. Jerry’s just an amazing singer and amazing guitar player, and we just really connect. There’s an overwhelming feeling that you can go through when you are playing this stuff, and it’s really very, very beautiful. I don’t always bring it into what I do in my own band. To do it with a great singer in a more traditional setting is really very exciting for me."
The bond between Statman and Wicentowski extends beyond growing up in the same city.
"Andy and I are both observant Jews," says Wicentowski. "That and both being bluegrass nuts has led to some crazy conversations, such as his assertion that Bill Monroe singing with Lester Flatt in the mid '40's was so sweet and lyrical, that it conveyed the sense of `Gan Aden'--Hebrew for the Garden of Eden."
Being an observant Jew means no gigs on Friday nights, something that might make most musicians gag, but not Statman.
"These are just my work conditions," says Statman. "Aside from having the beauty and the depth of the Sabbath, whether I'm with my family or another family on the road, or just in a hotel room by myself, it's a time of spiritual renewal and recharge, and it's really a time of joy and deep experience."
Andy Statman with Jerry Wicentowski When: 7 p.m. Feb. 5 Where: Martyrs', 3855 N. Lincoln Ave. Price: $10; 773-404-9494