In the Diaspora: An 'ahava' supreme

Andy Statman has become one of the most important Jewish creative artists of the postwar era.

andy statman 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
andy statman 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
'Let us sing all songs to God," John Coltrane wrote in late 1964, shortly after he had finished recording the jazz album that would be entitled A Love Supreme. Inspired by Coltrane's upbringing in black Christianity and his adult exploration of Eastern religion, the record both exuded reverence and iconoclasm. It was a faith offering that soared and ranged way beyond the musical bounds of gospel and hymn. Performance by performance, CD by CD, over the course of the past decade Andy Statman has been producing the Jewish equivalent, a body of praise music that is orthodox in belief and heterodox in style, something one can fairly call "An Ahava Supreme." Statman has done so with relatively little fanfare and with a refreshing indifference to his own career as a business proposition, and perhaps that is why only the most devoted musicians, critics, and listeners seem to have noticed that he has become one of the most important Jewish creative artists of the postwar era. Late in 2006, Statman released two more exquisite albums, East Flatbush Blues and Awakening From Above. Taken together, they reflect his awesome scope as a musician, with the former a recording of mostly bluegrass tunes with Statman on mandolin and the latter a collection of Hassidic niggunim with him on clarinet. Statman was also the subject of a splendid documentary on public radio by Jon Kalish, "Andy Statman's Journey," which can be easily located on-line. While Statman as a ba'al teshuva has lived a rigorously observant life for decades, Statman as a musician has defied every category. He is linked to bluegrass through such influences as Bill Monroe, to the Grateful Dead through his first mandolin teacher (and sometimes collaborator) David Grisman, and to klezmer through his clarinet mentor Dave Tarras. IN HIS earlier incarnation, Statman typified many Jews of his time and place, reared during the 1960s in material comfort and moderate to minimal religious observance. The music of other peoples - blues, country, Indian, Native American - was the music that seemed to possess an authenticity that the shul-with-a-pool lifestyle of suburbia lacked. In his initial musical passions, Statman was a fellow traveler of David Bromberg and Bob Dylan, the descendant of Jews like Elliott Adnopoz, who reinvented himself as a cowboy folksinger named Ramblin' Jack Elliott. Without ever having moved into the realm of Hassidic music, Statman still would have been a respected, accomplished performer for the series of bluegrass and klezmer records he made in the 1970s and 1980s. But just as John Coltrane came to a pivotal moment in his artistry when he kicked a longtime heroin addiction, a recovery he attributed to God, so was Statman's course changed by revelation. As Statman recalled in Kalish's documentary, once he embraced Orthodox Judaism, he found he no longer needed klezmer to be his touchstone to Jewish tradition. He became increasingly drawn to the religious music of the Hassidic world. That choice was propitious in all sorts of ways. The Hassidim take more seriously than most other Jews the biblical admonition to praise the Almighty with the psaltery and timbrel, though in modern times the instrument of choice is more likely to be Yossi Piamenta's electric guitar or Matisyahu's reggae vocals. And I mean no disrespect to either one of those men to say that Statman is simply a virtuoso in ways they are not, a Coltrane-like figure with his combination of impeccable technique and boundless imagination. As anyone who has ever spent the night of Simhat Torah among the dancing crowds in Crown Heights can attest, Hassidic music is music not only of ecstasy but of improvisation - rolling, shape-shifting, melismatic. For Statman, then, it provides the kind of basic chordal latticework that modal jazz supplied to Coltrane, a foundation from which to invent. And he has done exactly that in a series of CDs stretching back to 1997 - Between Heaven and Earth, The Hidden Light, Wisdom, Understanding, and Knowledge, and Awakening From Above. Most of these albums have appeared on small labels, such as Shefa and Shanachie, and Statman's most regular live gig is at the Greenwich Village Synagogue. Of these modest commercial prospects, I have never heard or read of him complaining. Part of his equanimity certainly derives from the understanding that his music is a form of worship rather than mere entertainment; part of it probably comes from the satisfaction of being known as a "musician's musician." But when you take account of the entire oeuvre, you can't help but recognize that, even if Andy Statman does not have one specific recording that is a summation in the way "A Love Supreme" was for Coltrane, he has achieved something just as significant. He has informed a repertory of Jewish religious music - and, in the case of much klezmer, Jewish secular music - with his myriad influences and questing intelligence, and he has laid the gift not only before God but before us. The writer is a professor of journalism at Columbia University.