Wandering down the quiet Greenwich Village street you’ll discover a humble handwritten sign advertising “Bluegrass Tonight” outside the leaf enshrined door of the Derech Amuno Synagogue at 53 Charles Street, on the corner of West 4th. Pull open the heavy wooden door and take a few steps down to the library/basement of the temple and you’ll find about twenty folding chairs are set up in rows of three and four. It’s quite an intimate setting to see a musical innovator of Andy Statman’s stature. When not on tour or in the recording studio you can find the mandolinist/clarinet virtuoso blending strains of bluegrass, free jazz and klezmer every Monday and Thursday night at the shule. For six and a half years now the low-key biweekly gig has allowed him to experiment with fresh ideas, while drawing from a batch of the city’s best improvisers, which has included such guest stars as David Grisman, Mike Marshall and Bela Fleck.
“One of these nights Ricky Skaggs will be coming to temple!” Statman said. The gig keeps him “perpetually warmed up. A lot of my music evolves out of these sessions. And the audience is part of the journey,” Andy said. Looking around, it turns out the crowd is nearly as eclectic as the music - a mix of Hasidim, various village people, Dominican friars and musicians hang on every note that Statman and bassist Rubin Rading play. The set includes Andy’s compositions, old Jewish folk melodies, blues and variations on old bluegrass standards like “Turkey in the Straw” and “Arkansas Traveler,” which might take you a minute or two to recognize. The end result? An all you can hear sonic smorgasbord that blends Bill Monroe with Albert Ayler and Dave Tarras (the King of Klezmer clarinet) that’s enough to knock your yarmulke off!
The duo takes a break after an hour long set and the older gentleman with glasses and a white beard, who was sitting by the door, reading, contemplating, when I made my entrance – turns out to be the “Cultural Director,” Herman Lowenhaar. Herman meanders about the small crowd collecting money for the musicians – ten dollars if your employed, less if you’re a student or currently looking for work and provides various modes of refreshment from little glasses of water to wine and schnapps.
“It’s one of the oldest synagogues in the city,” Statman says shuffling charts, getting ready for the next set. A gentle setting indeed for such radical invention.
The Village Voice dubbed Statman’s gig “The Best Bluegrass in a Shule” The music begins around 8:30/8:45 PM and lasts until 11/11:30.
For more info on Andy Statman and his two forthcoming new albums, East Flatbush Blues (mandolin instrumentals) and Awakening From Above (compositions for clarinet) on the Shefa Records label - go to www.andystatman.org
All photos this story credit Christoph Giese