From Bluegrass to Klezmer: Andy Statman

Rob Hochschild
March 15, 2010
Student bassist Noam Wiesenberg, left, accompanies Andy Statman.
Photo by Danielle Dreilinger

There's been a lot of talk about roots music at Berklee in recent years, but no one seems to come from quite the perspective and background that visiting artist Andy Statman does. He started his long musical career back in the 1960s as a virtuosic bluegrass mandolin player, but then went through a long and deep immersion in jazz, when saxophone became his main instrument. Eventually he turned his attention more to the clarinet during a period when he began exploring his Jewish spiritual roots, making klezmer music a central focus. Throughout his musical evolution, he's been productive, having released a string of acclaimed albums as a leader and playing on recordings with Bob Dylan, Bela Fleck, Itzhak Perlman, Vassar Clements, and many others.

"Andy Statman is the heaviest musician that I know," says Matt Glaser, who is artistic director of the American Roots Music Program and brought Statman to Berklee. "His deep grounding in a variety of traditions combined with his improvisational genius and spiritual orientation create a musician who is devastating in his emotional impact."

During a February clinic all of Statman's influences were on display. He gave a solo mandolin performance of a tune that started out sounding like straight-ahead bluegrass before incorporating moments of blues and jazz. Later he played "Zhok Mahoney," one of his klezmer originals, with student bassist Noam Wiesenberg.

While Statman excels in a range of genres, he's no dabbler. When he discovered Albert Ayler and dove into jazz, he moved on quickly, selling his mandolin and all of his bluegrass albums. "I can be a little extreme," he said during the intimate session in Berklee's 1W recital hall.

"The deeper you get into one style, the better it will serve you in anything. . . . If people don't master one style, they'll be dilettantes of every style. It's a real trap for musicians."

Key to Statman's deep experience of various musical styles was his choice of high-caliber teachers. He studied bluegrass mandolin with David Grisman, mastered the saxophone at the feet of virtuoso jazz reedman Richard Grando, and studied Jewish music with Dave Tarras, a clarinetist who is generally viewed as klezmer's most important artist.

Moving forward, Berklee students will get more of a glimpse of what Statman can offer to them as mentors. After the clinic, Glaser said he hoped to bring Statman back to the college for frequent visits, and also hinted at what he hoped the master would pass along to the students.

"He's combining the emotional worlds of Bill Monroe and Albert Ayler," says Glaser. "Kids have a very different mindset today. Some students at Berklee are impressed with technical perfection. Andy has as much technique as any instrumentalist, but he communicates at a very deep emotional level."