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Andy Statman Trio traverses Klezmer, bluegrass, jazz

With his pedigree, Andy Statman’s career as a musician was foretold. A line of cantors going back to the late 1700s and early 1800s in Europe. Later, grandfathers, uncles and cousins who found expression in new art forms offered by the American landscape. Then a brother taken up by the folk revival, bringing home Bob Dylan records.

Andy Statmen on the clarinet with Larry Eagle on drums and Jim Whitney on bass at Jco’s ‘Come Together’ event, June 15, 2022.

In answer to the question, “Did you grow up in a musical family?” Statman’s answer is an unequivocal “yes.”

The Brooklyn-based godfather of Klezmer music was in town to perform at JEWISHcolorado’s Come Together annual event, as part of the Andy Statman Trio, comprised of Statman on clarinet and mandolin, Jim Whitney on bass, and Larry Eagle on drums and percussion.

Statman and Whitney sat down with the Intermountain Jewish News ahead of the gig, where they discussed their musical backgrounds, concepts of musical expression and how the personal interplays with the musical.

Totally separate from the Trio or to a large extent even from Statman himself, is his family’s incredible musical history. Not only were there generations of cantors, but a great-great grandfather stipulated that all of his daughters (“six or seven”) marry cantors.

Voice was the instrument of choice, and when the family landed on these shores, vaudeville and Tin Pan Alley found them.

There was a set of cousins who did film shorts in the 1920s and ‘30s. One of them, Willie Howard, was the first to have a one-man show on Broadway and no less than Marlon Brando called him an influence.

Then there was another cousin, Sammy Fain, whose compositions can be found in the Great American Songbook, on Disney soundtracks and Broadway playbills.

Statman says he grew up on a regular diet of music, but both Whitney and Statman say they were heavily influenced by the music their siblings began bringing home in the 1960s.

Statman’s brother became very involved in the folk revival, leading Statman to pick up guitar, then later to use his Bar Mitzvah money to buy a banjo. By the time he got into mandolin, Sundays in Washington Square Park, where musicians met to socialize and perform, were a regular outing.

Being the youngest of six, Whitney says his older siblings’ “ever expanding record collection” meant that music was “coming to me almost from birth.”

Discovering he had perfect pitch helped things along as he began learning parts of melodies on a variety of instruments.

Statman and Whitney are in sync when it comes to discussing music, which is no surprise as they have been playing New York venues regularly for over 20 years.

Statman calls the Trio one of the last “working bands.” Prior to the pandemic they played together at least one or two nights a week, including a steady gig at a New York synagogue. Known as a Klezmer trio, they are that — and so much more. Other folk styles, particularly bluegrass, influence their sound, as to do more complex musical art forms such as jazz.

In their set at Denver Art Museum’s spectacular new event center, the Lanny & Sharon Martin Building, the three start with classical Klezmer tunes; then move in a bluegrass style jam while also exploring the open spaces of jazz, quintessential to New York’s legendary Knitting Factory, on whose stage the Trio has appeared a multitude of times.

Their performance seemed a perfect reflection of the conversation prior.

On Klezmer, Statman explains that at its heart it is the music of European chasidic Judaism, the instrumental expression of niggunim, and that many of the original Klezmorim were chasidic.

He calls it a “Jewish musical language,” but being Jewish is no prerequisite to playing it masterfully. Ask Whitney, the bassist, who isn’t Jewish.

“It’s all about the music,” says Whitney. “The history, the culture and spirituality are always a part of it as well. And even though I didn’t grow up in that, I just embraced the moment in whatever it means [to the musicians].”

Statman, himself an observant Jew, agrees: “On a purely musical level, it doesn’t make that much of a difference.” Someone can either play, or not. Whitney points to “white guys playing in soul bands,” as another example.

“Occasionally friction comes up. That’s human nature and people deal with it. But for the most part, musicians just want to play in a way that they’re comfortable and with people that they’re comfortable with.”

The two truly are musicians’ musicians. They talk about their craft in a way that is difficult for this lay person to fully grasp — in words. But when the abstract becomes the concrete — during the performance — the musical conceptions become evident.

Feeling” and “vocabulary” are two words that crop up again and again. “Feeling” — as in, the uniqueness that each musical style carries. To the point that even if lyrics and instruments are identical, “feeling” creates two different compositions.

For instance, says Statman, if Kate Smith, known as the First Lady of Radio, sings “G-d Bless America,” she sings it as a “patriotic torch song.” When Ray Charles sings it, “he makes it into a gospel song. Totally different feelings.”

To bridge these feelings, which instrumentalists like Whitney and Statman do through their exploration of folk and jazz styles, a musician needs “vocabulary.”

I ask the two how they switch so seamlessly among different musical traditions and Whitney provides a metaphor.

“Think of it like you’re talking to us about music now. But if you turned around and talked to somebody else about surfing, if that interested you, or cooking or whatever, you can make the switch . . . because you have the vocabulary to talk about this different subject matter.

“It’s kind of the same. We know the vocabulary of Jewish music. We know the vocabulary of bluegrass. We know the vocabulary of rock or country music. These other influences that are part of what we do and we can draw on, mixing styles.”

Knowing the vocabulary, Statman expounds, allows the trio to traverse genres, depending on the venue and crowd. Sometimes, the sets are pre-planned and comprised of three-to-four-minute tunes, all mostly of one genre, say Klezmer. Other times, says Statman, “We see where it goes.”

Whether pre-planned or not, the set at the Jco event on June 15 was generous, open and diverse in sound and feel. 
 The trio opened with several Klezmer tunes, with Statman on the clarinet.

About halfway through, the multi-instrumentalist switched to the mandolin, continuing with Klezmer sounds but also incorporating classic bluegrass tones — including in a creative and melancholic version of “Shalom Aleichem” — and finally culminating in a jazz-style improv reflecting the open space of DAM’s new glass-lined rotunda.

The trio’s synchronicity has been honed over decades, with evident mutual respect. They respect each other’s lifestyle limitations — Statman does not play on Shabbat — and support each other’s musical opportunities — when Whitney was offered a concert at a musical event in New Zealand which meant canceling a Trio gig, Statman encouraged Whitney to do so.

And this week, Statman was scheduled to have his Grand Ole Opry debut in Nashville, probably the highest honor in the world of country and bluegrass. He came to it through collaboration with a different set of musicians, but Whitney is obviously pleased for Statman, implying that the honor, about which Statman is “thrilled,” is long overdue.

Temple Emanuel’s Rabbi Joe Black, himself a musician, was one of the attendees reveling in the Trio’s musicianship.

“Andy Statman is a pioneering force in two worlds:Klezmer and bluegrass. To be in his presence,” said Black, “is to witness true genius. I was thrilled that JEWISHcolorado brought him to Denver.”

IJN Assistant Publisher |

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