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Andy Statman: The Real Jewish Jazz

The first thing Andy Statman wants you to understand about his new CD, Between Heaven & Earth: Music of the Jewish Mystics (Shanachie), is that it is most definitely not another klezmer album. "What we're playing is Chassidic music, it's not klezmer music," he says over the phone from his home in the Flatbush area of Brooklyn, New York. "I don't like to use the word `klezmer.' It becomes very limiting."

For the last 25 years, Statman has been a primary force behind neo-klezmer -- the revival of the instrumental dance music of Eastern European Jews. After achieving critical acclaim as a bluegrass mandolinist in the early '70s, he learned clarinet and went on to record the likes of Jewish Klezmer and Klezmer Music (both Shanachie), Flatbush Waltz (Rounder), and Songs of Our Fathers (Acoustic Disc), a duet album with David Grisman of traditional Jewish melodies. The musical study also led to a closer look at his religious roots. Most recently, Statman's Klezmer Orchestra has appeared alongside such other neo-klezmer groups as the Klezmatics, Brave Old World, and the Klezmer Conservatory Band, on tour and on two bestselling volumes of In the Fiddler's House (Angel), which features classical violinist Itzhak Perlman.

With Between Heaven & Earth, however, Statman is putting some distance between himself and the popular brand of traditional Jewish instrumental music. Motivated in part by his personal religious awakening, as well as by his longstanding affinity for exploring the spirit through jazz improvisation, he has gone back to the roots of klezmer in the niggunim, or Chassidic prayer melodies, that are used by Jewish mystics to induce heightened spiritual awareness.

Statman's quartet, with pianist Kenny Werner, bassist Harvie Swartz, and drummer Bob Weiner, use these melodies -- which are still sung daily in synagogue or at the table by Chassidic Jews like Statman -- as raw material for their spiritually oriented jazz improvisations. Statman likens his approach to some of John Coltrane's later excursions into Indian music. The result, on songs like the dramatic "Atah Nigleisah (You Were Revealed)" and the darkly enigmatic "The Maggid's Deveykus Niggun" is a sweepingly elegant intersection of ancient and modern modalities.

Statman explains that in its original form klezmer music in fact did have a spiritual function above and beyond its role as the secular party music of Yiddish-speaking Jews in the Old and New Worlds. "There was tremendous spirituality built into it. It was music created to serve a particular religious function: to make a bride and groom happy at a wedding. The musicians of old had in mind that they were fulfilling a particular mitzvah when they were playing at weddings."

In a sense, Between Heaven & Earth reclaims klezmer as sacred music. In the process, Statman and his bandmates -- along with mandolinist Grisman and banjoist Bela Fleck, who appear on a few cuts -- create a sort of Jewish/new-age fusion. The alternately laughing and weeping tone of the klezmer clarinet is recognizable in Statman's playing, but here it is the trance-like voice of the chazan, or cantor, and not the party maven. And rather than providing dance music, the band here are davening, or praying, improvising a kind of collective, call-and-response session patterned after the communal worship of religious Jews.

Klezmer is often erroneously referred to as "Jewish jazz." With his new album's undeniable foundation in Jewish religious melody and its instantly recognizable modern-jazz approach (it's not a far leap from the "Chassidic Waltz" to some of Dave Brubeck's Eurasian-influenced compositions, or from "Purim Niggun" to the MJQ's Bach treatments), has Statman accidentally stumbled on the real "Jewish jazz?"

"It's jazz, it's Jewish music, it's a number of different things," he says. "Is it the real Jewish jazz? I don't know."

-- Seth Rogovoy

(The Andy Statman Quartet plays Johnny D's next Thursday, March 27. Call 776-2004.)

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