“Andy Statman albums are like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.” Forrest Gump’s mother.
A while back I blogged about the album Old Brooklyn by Andy Statman. This album took some work for me because it veers into territory I’m not very familiar with – notably some of the more avant garde areas of jazz and Ashkenazi Jewish folk music. It’s a very eclectic album (you get a spiritual sung by Ricky Skaggs AND a duet for clarinet and kettle on hot plate) and the musical stew Statman serves up on it is anything but bland. But while I was getting confused and surprised this album also had me grinning in a way that few other albums or musicians have managed. Literally grinning. Like a fool. .
So the only sensible thing to do was to get more Statman.
It turns out that he has more range than even Old Brooklyn let on.
There’s also a little message in all of this about not judging books by covers. Statman is an observing Chassidic Jew, what one might call a member of the “black hat brigade”. So he dresses in an austere fashion, observes all the dietary laws, doesn’t do drugs or hang around in bars, goes to shul and etc etc. Yet the music he produces is exhilarating and uninhibited to a degree that a lot of more outwardly flamboyant characters can’t match. Black and white movies can have spectacular soundtracks.
Anyways. I had taken Old Brooklyn on the advice (not personal but in a column) of Richard Haslop. This is a fairly recent album. My next stop was the most recent (at time of writing) Statman album Superstring Theory. So I was hardly starting at the very beginning.
Superstring Theory is a single album with a narrower scope and Statman being a good host and playing to the strengths of his guests – fiddler Michael Cleveland and multi-instrumentalist Tim O’Brien who mostly plays guitar on this album. Statman plays hardly any clarinet. The first impression is of a sort of bluegrass on steroids with Statman throwing in lots of jazzy and Eastern European flourishes, but that’s really only a starting point. They touch on surf rock too and even cover Richie Valens’s “Come On Let’s Go”. Cleveland is a terrific player and Statman gives him a lot of time in the spotlight. O’Brien, like so many Americana/Bluegrass players often doesn’t play more than is necessary and thus doesn’t always display the full range of his skills, but here he gets to stretch out in a jazzier setting than he usually operates in. There’s waltzes and bluegrassy tunes, but there’s also surf rock and in particular a terrific Django-esque tune “French Press” that they take at exhilarating pace. Not all the experiments work. The Richie Valens tune doesn’t really go anywhere special, and the singalong “Brooklyn London Rome” might have been fun in the studio but gets boring on the record. So it’s a Curate’s egg, but the good parts are so good that it still puts a smile on the dial.
The latter consideration may be important when discussing Statman, who has some strong ideas about the spiritual and uplifting power of music.
The next that I got was Songs Of Our Fathers which is a duet album with Statman’s old mentor David Grisman. This album is all Klezmer – the folk music of the Ashkenazi Jews in Eastern Europe. Some of the tunes are traditional, some of them are more recent but drawing on the Klezmer tradition (it turns out that Statman has been a major figure in the revival of Klezmer music). There’s none of the sense of uninhibited soloing that I found on other albums, but it’s still a fine recording that has attractions even for those not familiar with the tradition being explored. The dance tunes (which would have been played at weddings) really make you want to get up and dance.
Then (in my own Statman timeline) came Between Heaven and Earth. Here I’m really, really out of my usual musical stomping ground and I have little in my experience to compare this to. Staman’s idea here is to take tunes out of the Chassisidic oral tradition and create instrumental music from them. Given that a lot of this music wasn’t written down and published but passed down within the tradition we could argue that this is folk music. But Statman himself says it’s jazz, so we’ll leave it there. The instrumentation here is mostly bass, drums, piano and Statman’s clarinet, but Grisman pops up one track as does the remarkable Bela Fleck. This is mostly intense, contemplative music with a lot of dynamic range and thus not well suited to commute listening on a train or, heaven help us, a bus. You need time to LISTEN to this, in an environment where there’s not a lot of background noise. But late at night, or, as did happen to me, on a holiday-season train when passenger counts are way down and you can get a whole coach to yourself, there are moments of transcendent beauty to be had here. I suspect it’s going to take me a while to really get to grips with this, and it may turn out to be a door into a musical suburb that I knew existed but had never explored.
Ever onwards. Statman doesn’t seem tied to one record label, and all these labels seem to have different distribution arrangements. And he’s not exactly Justin Bieber when it comes to volume of sales. So some of the more highly regarded Statman albums aren’t available on iTunes (!) or similar services and you have to go for a physical disc (!!). So when putting in an Amazon order for Christmas presents I included (for me, from me) East Flatbush Blues and Andy’s Ramble.
Statman started his musical journey as a bluegrass mandolin player, and the latter of those two albums is a homage to Bill Monroe, recorded in 1994 after Statman had spent some years away from that genre. It’s short on the left-field touches (swathes really) that I enjoyed so much on the first couple of his albums that I heard, but the playing (from Statman and from the band he assembled) is top notch and there’s that sense of joyousness that seems to pervade so much of his work.
East Flatbush Blues (2006) is also Statman the mandolin player and it kicks off with Monroe’s “Rawhide”, but this is not really what you’d call bluegrass. For a start there’s a drummer throughout. It’s Statman and his current (and very good) rhythm section of Jim Whitney on bass and Larry Eagle on drums and percussion (they also play on Old Brooklyn and Superstring Theory) and they operate here as a jazz trio who just happen to have taken some bluegrass tunes as the jumping off point for their extemporisations – one critic suggested that this album represents the birth of “bopgrass”. The music sounds and feels very immediate, like they recorded it in real time without overdubs, and this turns out to be Statman’s preferred recording MO. My initial thought was that it was a lot of fun but they jumped into the solos rather too quickly instead of stating the themes and then developing them. But some exploration on YouTube showed that this is how Monroe himself worked with “Rawhide”. It’s a platform for soloing – and it takes good players to do it justice and keep it interesting.
Which is no problem for Statman who is a very skilled player who offers up engaging, interesting tunes and solos, and seems to be able to attract plenty of co-conspirators who can do the same and create a space in which they can show their skills and go into interesting musical places.
Andy Statman has a breadth of vision that is uncommon. He’s not easily pigeon holed, and as he turns his hand to different forms, or chucks them all in the blender, it always seems that he’s explored them at depth and with great respect. He’s not just looking for enough form to add an interesting veneer to his music, he really gets to grips with whatever music he explores. He’s clearly an elite player and there’s an academic aspect to what he does and the way he explores music. But most of all he’s looking at music as a spiritual and emotional force, and this is the trump card. More than the top-notch playing, more than the marvellous eclecticism is the way he gets inside your head and your heart and gives the emotional strings a good tug.
Statman has soul.