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Exclusive Interview with Andy Statman: Part 2 – “Old Brooklyn”

Part 1 of this interview can be found here; Hislahavus’ review of Old Brooklyn can be found here.

Hislahavus: Some of your compositions on this album seem to have tones like niggunim; particularly Eitan and Zeidy. Thoughts on that?

Andy Statman: My Hollywood Girls – and I’ll have to tell you about that name – in its essence is like an old Chassidic march, but we set it up when we recorded it to do something else with it. It’s a Jewish song, and Bela! What a great job! That’s some of Bela’s most adventurous playing – it was really a great vehicle for him! And the steel player, and the trombone… it’s basically a Chassidic march done in its own way.

H: So where did the name Hollywood Girls pop up from?

AS: My daughter has five girls under the age of 8, and they live in Lakewood, New Jersey on Hollywood Avenue!

Eitan and Zeidy is also written as a Jewish melody that has other influences happening in some of the other sections. But it’s also essentially a Jewish song. And there’s also Waltz for Mom, which is to me almost like an old Chassidic waltz. There’s a place where some of the Chassidic waltzes can be from almost any culture – they can be central European, they can be Cajun, they can be from Georgia. A lot of it has to do with the feeling that’s put behind it, and a little of the rhythmic conception of the song.

H: So what goes into the naming of a composition?

AS: The names go in at the last minute. They have to be named something!

H: You seem to begin albums with a pensive song. Are you making a statement with that about your music?

AS: I used to do this all the time with concerts – in general, live, if you start with something a little more introspective it gives the musicians a little more time to warm and really sink their teeth into something. A lot of different types of Central Asian types of music would also start with something a little more pensive.

H: Old Brooklyn, however, seems to have a much lighter and playful tone. Why?

AS: Yeah – it’s a fun tune. I’ve always wanted to do a CD that I’d be able to mix everything together that I do live. We tried to do that with the last two records, Awakening From Above and East Flatbush Blues, but there’s no way they could be on the same recording together. So this time I wrote tunes and picked ensembles in ways of doing them so that you’d have a program that worked, and you could go back and forth between mandolin and clarinet, as well as stylistically. Old Brooklyn goes through various, for lack of a better word, genres – though it’s its own type of thing – and after that is Hollywood Girls, which is its own thing, and then it goes into this old obscure Ozark tune which is done in our own way, and then into the Lord Will Provide, with Ricky, which is a universal lyric – although it’s sung in a gospel style. It’s one of these universal messages: How can you doubt that G-d will give you food, He gives the birds food… It’s very beautiful lyrically.

H: Ricky sings it very hartzig, almost like a niggun.

AS: Oh! He sang it absolutely beautiful! It’s in the real authentic style. And my playing is a combination of styles. There’s a Greek and Albanian style music that I studied from E. Brooks, so it’s a combination of that, klezmer and Charlie Parker. This song became its own thing, and to me, it’s like some sort of field recording from a hundred years ago.

Then it goes into the thing with the tea kettle! That certainly has a number of Jewish things going on there as well. There’s a solo clarinet piece called Life Cycles, which is very much like a type of niggun. That song actually was done on the second CD, with the song called Bourbon in Jackson Hole – it’s basically the same melody played with the band in a different style!

H: I didn’t even pick that up!

AS: Y’know, I don’t think anyone has, to tell you the truth!

H: In the past, you seem to have shied away from overdubbing, sticking instead to live music. Old Brooklyn has a few spots of your mandolin and clarinet together, although always with one playing background. Is there anything in that that is changing the way you approach recording music, or is this just what you decided to do for this one particular album?

AS: I’ve done that here and there before on other albums. When you’re doing a studio album with larger ensembles, then all sorts of things become available to you. We made it so it would sound live, but it’s impossible for me to be playing mandolin and three different clarinet parts simultaneously. So it’s a studio record mixed so it would sound live, rather than a studio production. All the basic tracks are in fact live. It wasn’t done in stages like some of these other records are. So basically it’s live recordings, but with overdub enhancements. Not on all the cuts, but just on a few.

H: If there were one musical artist you could meet and play with over history, who would it be and why?

AS: I have no idea! That’s hard to say – there are so many great musicians!

H: Did you ever play with Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass?

AS: Only when I was a kid. I was really very nervous – I was about 15 or 16. He was really very generous and very kind. But I was just a kid in awe of this guy, and Bill Monroe was this big tall guy wearing a cowboy hat and a suit – a really larger than life figure, and I was completely intimidated. But I guess I had the courage to do it, and I’m glad I did. But when I got older, I lost interest in his music. So when I could have done it on a professional level, I wasn’t in those circles; and even when I was, it didn’t hold interest in me because my musical interest had moved on to other areas. But I worked with a lot of musicians who were [in his bad, the] Bluegrass Boys at one time.

H: Considering that you are a Levi, does that influence or inspire you in some way?

AS: It’s part of your family heritage, so it definitely plays a part. I’m certainly aware of it. I was thinking of this the other because someone told me that [Art] Garfunkel of Simon and Garfunkel was a Levi, and the great harmonica player Howard Levy I assume is a Levi, and I was told that David Sanborne, the great saxophonist, is a Levi. But there are probably an equal amount or a greater amount of great Jewish musicians who are not Levi’im. But if you’re a Kohen or a Levi, it’s definitely something that you feel, you’re definitely aware of. Particularly if you’re observant, it takes on a role.

H: Considering the fact that you are one of the most emotive and expressive artists in the world today, can you give us an anecdote of a uniquely spiritual musical event that has influenced or continues to influence you?

AS: The deepest thing, for me, I remember many times in Modzhitz on Yom Kippur singing these niggunim during the prayers. It becomes a powerful experience beyond words. I don’t even know how to begin to describe how the music becomes a vehicle to help induce certain feelings that are, I think, core experiences. That’s probably the deepest experiences with music that I have. It’s quite possible you could reach those places without the music, but for me, the music becomes an incredible vehicle to go to those places. It might have been the Imrei Shaul or the Divrei Yisrael of Modzhitz who said, “Some people say that [in Heaven] the gate of music is next to the gate of repentance. But I say the gate of music IS the gate of repentance!” And then there’s the famous quote of the Alter Rebbe, that music can go higher than and beyond words.

H: Is there a difference between how you emote with clarinet and mandolin? Do you approach each tune separately and decide if it fits with mandolin or clarinet, or is it a more natural approach?

AS: It’s a little of both. In general, certain styles of music are better played on certain instruments, and that’s why they gained prominence in those styles. But it’s not a doctrine for me. I’m free, and if I think something works better played on the other instrument, I will play it with the other instrument. That being said, with the klezmer style, particularly in clarinet, it’s a natural voice for Jewish music. It’s all sort of right there for Ashkenazic music. If someone wants to play niggunim correctly, if they learn how to play klezmer music correctly, they’ll understand how to play a nigun and it’ll come out naturally.

H: So is it fair to say that as an American you play mandolin, and as a Jew you play clarinet?

AS: No, because I play a lot of Jewish music on mandolin and American music on clarinet. Probably the most well known song I wrote is a Jewish song called Flatbush Waltz, and that’s a mandolin tune. That’s a song that works better on mandolin, although people do play it on the clarinet. Ultimately, it really depends on the melody, and where it works best for you. For traditional niggunim, by and large, the clarinet has a language set up for it. I don’t think the mandolin was as developed a professional instrument in Eastern Europe, although there were some people who did play the mandolin professionally. There are almost no recordings of people from there who played mandolin in the real Jewish style. There were some mandolin orchestras that played Polish and Russian music, along with Jewish folk songs, but nothing was played in a real Jewish manner.

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