Andy Statman's Unorthodox Musical Approach

Andy Statman made a musical name for himself as a pioneer of progressive bluegrass. But his eclectic approach to recording and performing has often kept his music from the public. But two new CDs are on their way to the market.

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Andy Statman was a favorite among musicians in the progressive bluegrass scene of the 1970s. Though less well known than such peers as David Grisman or Bela Fleck, Statman was revered as a virtuoso mandolin player. A decade later he was playing Klezmer on the clarinet and his jazz interpretations of Hasidic melodies landed him a major label deal. But none of this seems to matter to Andy Statman. Today the record deal is history and the musician is content to play for tiny audiences. As Jon Kalish reports, Statman follows his own muse.

JON KALISH: Three musicians face each other at the end of a dimly lit, narrow room in the basement of a Greenwich Village synagogue. Jim Whitney hugs his bass. Larry Eagle fingers his drumsticks as Andy Statman, standing near a wall, puts his clarinet to his lips.

(Soundbite of music)

KALISH: For more than six years, Statman's trio has performed twice a week at Congregation Derech Emunah for crowds that range in size from a handful to several dozen. On this particular night about 10 people are sitting on metal folding chairs. Steven Brislow is one of them.

Mr. STEVEN BRISLOW (Audience Member): It doesn't really matter to these guys. It seems to me like they're not really playing for us. They're playing for themselves. Even their orientation tonight, they were really sort of a triangle, three points all faced inward. I mean, I just feel kind of blessed to be here with my friend listening to this. But I don't think it matters to them that we're here at all.

(Soundbite of music)

KALISH: Andy Statman says the opportunity to play in a relaxed, respectful setting has had a profound impact on his playing. He's not disappointed when just a few people show up.

Mr. ANDY STATMAN (Musician): I wouldn't have done anything differently and this is just what I do. This is who I am. It would be great if I could play for more people. But if not, I'll still be doing the same thing.

KALISH: That approach to music and life inspires and frustrates Statman's friends and colleagues.

Mr. MATT GLASER (Berklee College of Music): Andy almost has an internal sense of doing whatever would guarantee that he would not be commercial.

KALISH: Matt Glaser has been a friend of Statman's for 40 years. Glaser chairs the string department at the Berklee College of Music in Boston.

Mr. GLASER: Andy is the most devoted to his muse of any musician I can think of. He's the most in touch with some kind of internal compass about where music should go. He almost has an unerring sense of doing the thing guaranteed to make sure that he won't be able to make much of a living as a musician.

KALISH: Statman complicated matters in the 1980s when he began to explore his Jewish roots. He became devotedly Orthodox and so he couldn't perform on the Jewish Sabbath, which precludes him from working on both Friday and Saturday nights for much of the year. But a decade later, Statman came back with a critically acclaimed album of Hasidic melodies played by a jazz quartet.

(Soundbite of music)

KALISH: The group was signed by Sony Classical and released a second CD, but sales were disappointing. Kenny Werner played piano in the quartet.

Mr. KENNY WERNER (Pianist): The overriding thing I know about Andy is that he's not obsessing about having a musical career, yet he plays with more care and love and respect than the most ambitious musician. He's going somewhere that he's not controlling. If somebody happens to be there, then they become part of it for a while. It's like Forrest Gump sitting on the bench; it's whoever else happens to sit on the bench. Sometimes I think that about Andy. And if that person wants to get up off the bench, that's fine, but he's still on the bench, you know?

(Soundbite of music)

KALISH: Statman has gone eight years without releasing a major new recording. But it's not like he's been sitting on his hands. In addition to playing twice a week at the synagogue, he's made a number of recordings, many of them never released. They include a third album of Hasidic jazz, a recording of Jewish Sabbath melodies set to bluegrass music, and a pop album that features electric guitar cameos by Richard Thompson.

(Soundbite of music)

KALISH: Some of Statman's unreleased sessions were co-produced by Dovid Sears, a former jazz musician who is now an Orthodox Jew.

Mr. DOVID SEARS (Producer): Master tapes of numerous records, many of which came out and many of which didn't come out. They're in his garage. They're in his basement. They're in different friends' houses. Tons and tons of tapes just in boxes. I don't even know if they're marked. They're certainly not catalogued. Any number of records - different types of records over the years that were almost ready to go and all of the sudden something just came along and that was the end of the project. So if something got nixed three quarters of the way, and all of the sudden no interest, all of the sudden something else took precedence, and that's it.

Mr. STATMAN: The truth is, is by the time I finish a record, I've moved on to something else.

KALISH: Andy Statman.

Mr. STATMAN: Records really have a life of their own. Eventually these will all come out. I learned a lot in making the records, and I was glad for the opportunity to do them. And whenever they come out, they'll come out. You know, I'm not so concerned about it.

KALISH: His friend Dovid Sears says that's a problem. People, Sears complains, are not hearing great music.

Mr. SEARS: Some of the greatest music, which in my opinion is available in this generation in America, and it remains obscure. Andy's just playing what he's playing and not enough people are hearing it and appreciating it. And that's the real tragedy.

KALISH: Andy Statman's playing is certainly appreciated by other musicians. The word peerless frequently comes up when they talk about Statman's mandolin playing.

(Soundbite of music)

KALISH: Bluegrass standout Ricky Skaggs is a fan and sometime collaborator.

Mr. RICKY SKAGGS (Musician): He's just over the top. You know, it's like if Bill Monroe and John Coltrane could be poured into one person, you know, I mean he - he plays all those just great crazy jazz kind of licks, you know, but that heart and fire of Bill Monroe, you know, and with the Klezmer background that he has, he hears all these great runs and melodic things that he pulls out of his hat, you know, and goes for on the mandolin; it's just great. I don't anyone else that approached the mandolin the way he does.

KALISH: Statman's mandolin chops are evident on the recording his trio made at the Greenwich Village synagogue.

(Soundbite of music)

KALISH: The group also recorded a clarinet CD at the synagogue. Both disks appear poised for release after being repeatedly delayed for one reason or another. Statman, who hasn't had a manger or a booking agent for years, says gigs basically come to him. He admits he's just getting by financially, but remains adamant about not compromising for the sake of making a buck.

Mr. STATMAN: To make real compromises, I can't do, because it's taking a life force and converting it into something that is not honest. It's something that I don't feel and something that I don't believe in. And it's really in many ways desecrating a talent. I'm playing a personal super-esoteric type of music, but I believe that for the right audience - and I believe there's an audience for it - it's a music that could really help a lot of people and move a lot of people in a positive direction.

KALISH: If only they could hear it. And they just might. Statman has launched his own label and inked a deal with a distributor to release his two new CDs. He can be heard with his old friend, mandolinist David Grisman, on a new recording put out by Grisman's label.

For NPR News, I'm Jon Kalish in New York.

(Soundbite of music)

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