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Klezmer master Andy Statman finds spirituality in Jewish music

Baltimore Jewish Times
BALTIMORE, April 2 (JTA) — For clarinetist Andy Statman, Jewish music has always served a spiritual purpose. Statman, 46, has dedicated much of his 30-year career to Jewish music, and he has put his personal stamp on traditional melodies. For example, his recording “Songs of Our Fathers” features Statman and fellow musician David Grisman on mandolins, interpreting 12 traditional Jewish melodies, ranging from mournful liturgy to festive wedding music. In America, people’s souls “are starved for anything Jewish,” Statman said during a phone interview from his home in Brooklyn, N.Y. “This music has a tremendous power to awaken feelings of Jewishness.” Statman was at the heart of the klezmer revival in the early 1970s. He became an apprentice to Dave Tarras, a legendary figure in the klezmer world, and coaxed him back into the spotlight for some of his last performances. The melodic strains of traditional Eastern European music helped Statman feel more connected to his Jewish heritage. “The function of klezmer was to evoke something in one’s neshamah,” or soul, he said. When his musical exploration led him to a Torah observant lifestyle, he abandoned klezmer for Chasidic niggunim — melodies designed to induce a spiritual reaction. “Once I became fully observant, I found I had less of a need for klezmer music,” said Statman, who attends a Chasidic shtiebel in Brooklyn’s Flatbush neighborhood. “Before, it served a religious function for me. Now that I am leading the lifestyle klezmer is expressing, I play klezmer less and less.” Statman and Grisman recorded “Songs of Our Fathers” two years ago at Grisman’s home and studio in Mill Valley, Calif. The four-day recording session evolved out of the friendship between the two musicians. They had met when Statman, then 15 and an aspiring bluegrass musician, took mandolin lessons from Grisman, a world-renowned musician who has coined his own musical lexicon. “I watched Andy become a master of [Jewish] music,” Grisman, who calls Statman “the rabbi,” said in an interview last year with the Baltimore Jewish Times. “I felt a connection to that music because of my own heritage, and I felt he was the right person to guide me to it. “My family was not very observant and I think this music has helped, in some way, to bring me back to Judaism.”
Statman is a firm believer in the power of music to help one connect to Judaism. His belief applies especially to Chasidic niggunim like those on his latest release, “Between Heaven and Earth: Music of the Jewish Mystics,” also featuring pianist Kenny Werner, drummer Bob Weiner and bassist Harvie Swarz. “Chasidic music is what gave klezmer its heart and soul,” Statman said. “It makes people feel closer to God. If a Jew hears those tunes, it makes him feel more Jewish. It’s like shining a mirror on one’s soul.” The music is a mixed bag of traditions — klezmer, jazz, Middle Eastern, Epirus-Albanian and Azerbaijani, with a dose of bluegrass and Appalachian music thrown in for good measure. Grisman and banjoist Bela Fleck also are featured on the album. “I have always wanted to master the traditions, but also find my own voice,” Statman said. “Until you understand the tradition, you will not understand what you can and can’t do with it.” Statman grew up in Queens, N.Y., in a home in which Jewish music was an integral part of his upbringing. Descended from a line of cantors dating back to the 1700s, Statman attended a Hebrew school where he sang niggunim. “That was the highlight of my experience there,” he recalled. His interest in Jewish music was put on hold when as a teen-ager he discovered bluegrass music. “By the time I was 16 or 17, I was a consummate bluegrass musician and could either go to Nashville or move on,” he said. He soon became interested in jazz, a movement in which other musicians were doing their own soul-searching. “John Coltrane, one of the last great jazz musicians, was on his own spiritual journey,” Statman said. “He became interested in Eastern religions, and his music became overtly spiritual. He turned to Indian and Middle Eastern music in his search. “And I went back to my birthright and heritage. Music has always been a way to approach spirituality in my life.”