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Voices Fall-Winter 2012:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read “Andy Statman: National Heritage Fellow — Innovating across Musical Worlds” by Pete Rushefsky here.
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Volume 38
Fall-Winter
2012
Voices

Andy Statman - National Heritage Fellow - Innovating across Musical Worlds - By Pete Rushefsky

This past October, the National Endowment for the Arts bestowed our nation’s highest honor in the field of folk and traditional arts on Brooklyn resident Andy Statman.

Even prior to his NEA recognition, Statman has long been one of the most celebrated traditional musicians in the United States. A virtuoso on clarinet and mandolin who has long been at the vanguard of both Jewish music and bluegrass, Statman was one of the most important instigators of klezmer’s revitalization, a movement that began in the late 1970s. For many years, he was recognized internationally as klezmer’s leading virtuoso. As his music shifted from klezmer—a secular form tinged with religious gestures—towards a creative engagement with the more overtly religious Hasidic music, the move had a profound impact on the field of Jewish music.

Since the award’s inception in 1982, the National Heritage Fellowship program has recognized leading American masters who provide “continuing contributions to our nation’s traditional arts heritage” (www.nea.gov/ honors/heritage). Typically, these artists have learned their craft through apprenticeships with an older generation of tradition bearers, and are looked to by their communities to provide artistic expressions that facilitate community cohesion. On all of these terms, Statman certainly is deserving of a place next to the roughly 300 artists recognized before him.

However, in other ways, Statman’s award represents something new—a sort of validation of a very contemporary breed of traditional musician. Statman came to the genres that he is best known for—klezmer and Hasidic music—when he was in his mid-20s and 30s, through a series of transformative musical experiences and a journey of personal discovery. Statman is not the first Fellow to have arrived via a musical roots journey—fiddler Michael Doucet (recognized by the NEA in 2007) began studying Cajun music in his mid-20s, also, through an NEA Apprenticeship grant.

To a greater degree than any other Heritage Fellow recognized in the past, Statman has built a career as a genre-pushing, musical polyglot. The NEA website heralds Statman’s oeuvre with these words: “The culmination of decades of creative development, his music expands the boundaries of traditional and improvisational forms.” Indeed, it would be hard to find a better representative of the creative possibilities for music offered by New York City over the last half-century than Andy Statman.

Andy Statman
Andy Statman. Photo: ©2009, Bradley Klein, www.twangbox.com

Since his early teens, Statman has shown an incredible knack for seeking out preeminent teachers and assimilating their instruction. He grew up in the heart of two “back to the roots,” or perhaps one might say, “forward through the roots” musical movements with hubs in New York City—contemporary bluegrass and the klezmer revival. Added to this was a significant immersion in jazz and shorter apprenticeships in a variety of other genres, including Caucasian and Greek music.

However, for this author, the most remarkable aspect of Statman’s music is not its cosmopolitan eclecticism but rather its judicious restraint. Whether klezmer or bluegrass, traditional or contemporary, Statman has an acute sensibility for the boundaries of the tradition. But boundaries do not constrain his music; rather, his prodigious musicality allows him to explore their full range, and perhaps, as the NEA asserts, expand them....


Cover of Jewish Klezmer Music, released by Shanachie Records in 1978.
Cover of Jewish Klezmer Music, released by Shanachie Records in 1978. Original photo of Zev Feldman and Andy Statman by Wren De Antonio used in cover design. Courtesy of Shanachie Records.

...Andy Statman has had a huge impact on Jewish music and continues to innovate across musical worlds. For many of us involved in klezmer music, Statman was the first artist whose albums shook our souls. He has been a major influence on every klezmer revivalist of note. His beautiful melody “Flatbush Waltz” is the most famous composition to have been produced by the klezmer revival, now a standard heard at weddings, concerts, and communal events worldwide (this author has even witnessed a performance of “Flatbush” by a Chinese ensemble in Chinatown). In the mid-1990s, he was featured alongside violinist Itzhak Perlman on two recordings, a series of tours, and an Emmy-winning PBS documentary In the Fiddler’s House that significantly raised klezmer’s profile in the US. When Statman turned to Hasidic music, it exposed thousands of klezmer musicians and millions of listeners to an entire world of melodies that for most was previously terra incognita. And many of us have been inspired by his example to explore Hasidic music as a pathway to a heightened Jewish spirituality.

Statman tours frequently for concerts, festivals, and workshops ranging from Jewish music to folk to jazz to bluegrass. When not on tour or observing the holidays, he continues to play twice weekly with his trio in a long-standing residency at the tiny Charles Street Synagogue in the West Village, and is still active as a wedding musician.

With his trio (featuring Jim Whitney on bass and Larry Eagle on drums), Statman recently released Old Brooklyn, which brings a number of old friends aboard, including Paul Shaffer (of the Late Show with David Letterman), Nashville stars Ricky Skaggs, Béla Fleck, and Byron Berline, as well as fiddler Bruce Molsky. In many ways, it’s the loosest album he’s put out since some of his early mandolin recordings, as this band of worldclass virtuosos attack a wide-ranging album of originals with a spontaneity that leaps from the headphones.

Now a grandfather and the patriarch of his own large family, recognized by his nation as a cultural treasure, Andy Statman just continues to get better.

 










Pete Rushefsky is the executive director of the Center for Traditional Music and Dance. Special thanks to Ethel Raim for her help in editing this piece, and to Andy Statman for his generous time spent in interviews. For more information about Statman’s recordings and performance calendar, visit his website www.andystatman.org.



Andy Statman
Andy Statman. Photo: ©2009, Bradley Klein, www.twangbox.com




This article, excerpted here, appeared in Voices Vol. 38, Fall-Winter 2012. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.

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