If you’re ever visiting New York City (or indeed if you live in the area) and are looking for a truly only-in-New-York thing to do, you could most certainly do no better than to check Andy Statman’s concert schedule and see if you can catch him at his home base of Charles Street, in the West Village, where his trio plays informal gigs in the basement of a humble synagogue. Andy Statman plays clarinet and mandolin; in fact, that’s exactly how he was described to me when I first heard of him, and naturally (me being me) I pictured in my mind’s eye a man playing a clarinet and a mandolin at the same time, and I thought to myself, “That’s pretty amazing.”
In reality, however, that’s about the only amazing thing that Andy Statman doesn’t do. He plays his instruments separately, so each gig is likely to have a clarinet set and a mandolin set. He’s an undisputed virtuoso on both instruments, effectively recognized as a national treasure by the N.E.A. in 2012, though recognized as such by his fans for much longer than that. On clarinet, he plays music overflowing by turns with soulfulness, mysticism and carnality. On mandolin, he plays music that spans the poignancy of a classic country ballad all the way to space-age, high-energy explosiveness, dazzling with his speed and technique.
And yet here’s the thing, which is the key reason I keep returning to hear him play with his trio: Everything that flows from Andy Statman’s clarinet and from his mandolin is filled with heart. It is never merely about brilliance of technique and speed. All of the technique that his music possesses is in the service of an expression of the heart. The really wonderful thing is that someone with so much heart has been blessed with such technical virtuosity. And in the vast blend of musics into which he dips—from the deep spirituality of ancient Hasidic melodies to the most exuberant bluegrass—his genius is in locating the common human yearning and joy at the center of it all.
Statman plays hither and nigh and it’s well worth the price of a ticket to hear him at any venue, but the special quality of Charles Street is that it is home. There is a sense of being in someone’s rather cluttered and dusty living room. There’s no cover charge at the door; you just go in and sit in one of the folding chairs near the front, or in some other spot amidst the scattered furniture. Andy Statman, with Jim Whitney on stand-up bass and Larry Eagle on drums, will be setting up, perhaps; they are not likely to start right on time (but soon enough).
And being a home, there must be a host, and that’s Herman, of the Darech Amuno synagogue overhead, who might offer a few remarks, and will certainly offer hospitality. No beverages are sold at the event, but a few drams of some hospitable spirit or libation are likely to be offered gratis. (One that might be encountered is memorialized in Statman’s tune “Surfing Slivovits.”) Around the midpoint of the evening, admission will be collected; on our most recent visit the suggested donation was $15, but it’s always made clear that the price is whatever you can pay. And try finding the above kind of hospitality in any other Manhattan jazz venue. On the flip side, if such things matter to you, you might find yourself a wee bit uncomfortable on the folding chair you may be sitting on, and if it’s a night when there’s a crowd you may feel a bit cramped. It being an informal gig, the musicians will goof around some, and there may be a false start on a new number: this could bug you if you are a very exacting type, but if you relax you’re likely to hear the kinds of musical diamonds hewn from spontaneity that are the most precious of all.
On our most recent visit last Wednesday, we were treated to an especially inspired evening of music. A Statman staple is “Window Up Above,” the George Jones classic, every nuance of which he can amplify and cry out on his mandolin, and on this night we heard yet another poignant angle on it, different not least for Jim Whitney’s very striking bass interlude. And as Whitney is a fitting cohort to Statman on his stand-up bass, Larry Eagle on drums is an ideal percussionist, endlessly inventive and sensitive (and he doesn’t need to take a solo on every number to prove it). Amidst the mix of tunes were tracks from the most recent Superstring Theory, and several nameless numbers, Statman originals from an album the group is currently recording, and which sounded to these ears not like any kind of rehash but a whole new level of brilliance.
If you’re lucky enough to ever go to Charles Street to hear Statman and company, the first video below conveys a little of what you might experience. This tune is “For Barbara,” from Superstring Theory.
And then there are those occasions when there are guests, and there is no one who would not be honored to be a guest at an Andy Statman show.
Only in New York …