So it may surprise some of his fans to know that the quintessential nice, Jewish klezmer-loving guy from “across the bridge” owes much of his music inspiration to — Wheeling, W.Va.?
Nu? Go figure.
In an interview with the Chronicle just weeks ahead of the release of his latest, perhaps most eclectic album to date, “Old Brooklyn,” Statman, now 61, credits the “Wheeling Jamboree,” a long-running country/bluegrass radio program for whetting his taste for his life’s work.
“Wheeling played a great part in my musical development,” Statman said, recalling how he used to sit up into the night listening to the “Jamboree” on WWVA — a 50,000-watt radio station strong enough to be heard in New York.
There, he was introduced to legendary performers such as Doc Williams and the Border Riders and many other acts he admits many of his traditional Jewish fans probably never heard of.
“I just remember I was up to 3 in the morning listening to these guys,” Statman recalled. “That station played a major role in me getting into bluegrass and becoming a musician.”
Did the master of klezmer who grew up in a secular household, but has since become an observant Jew, say (“bluegrass?”)
Yep, Statman played bluegrass early in his career. He also moved on to jazz, and then klezmer, studying under David Tarras, whom many klezmer aficionados would label as the genre’s finest clarinetist of the 20th century.
For himself, though, Statman doesn’t necessarily describe himself as a klezmer performer — not anymore.
“I stopped playing traditional klezmer back in the early ’80s, and already had a band that’s been very innovative,” Statman said. “I haven’t really played klezmer as a folk music in many years.”
“At this point, I don’t worry so much about names [of music styles],” he added. “I’ve studied a number of different styles and can play in them, but now I just play music and play whatever seems right at the time.”
Nowhere is that more evident than his latest two-CD set, “Old Brooklyn.”
Unshackled by the labels of music genres, Statman has teamed up with some of the hottest singers and musicians today, including Ricky Skaggs, Bela Fleck and Paul Shaffer, to create a music package with roots far beyond the Brooklyn Bridge.
The listeners will detect hints of Beal Street, Bourbon Street, the Mississippi Delta, Motown, Appalachia, and yes, Eastern Europe, though the klezmer influence is no more or no less important to this album than any other music style.
“All the music on this record may fit a few genres, but I’m doing it my own way,” Statman said. “It’s really my own music at this point.”
That is, with the influence of his collaborators on the album, he added.
Take “The Lord Will Provide,” a well-worn English hymn from the 18th century. Sung by Skaggs, with Statman on clarinet (he also plays a lot of mandolin on this album), it was Skaggs who suggested it be included, and the country music star sings it with slow, deliberate passion.
“He sang it for me once and I loved it and he suggested we do it so we came up with a quick arrangement. So to me its sounds like an ancient field recording,” said Statman.
And while the song has an Appalachian gospel hint, Statman took issue with that suggestion.
“It’s just a song about Abraham and Hashem and that’s what people are davening and that’s what this song is about,” he said. “It’s really a song about faith in God.”
Statman hasn’t forgotten his klezmer fans on “Old Brooklyn.” The style is evident on the title track as well as “Shabbos Nigun” (a duet he played with Fleck) and “Totally Steaming.”
Klezmer, according to Statman, has joined the American music landscape — played in its purest form, yet also rearranged and reinterpreted by the musicians who have mastered it.
“To me, klezmer music is from a [different] time and place, but I think klezmer’s last flourishing was in America. Then it picked up a lot of different influences here, it sort of became several styles removed from the community it originally represented.
Just bluegrass, Dixieland jazz and several other styles are now described as American.
“Musicians can synthesize different styles and bring in other influences,” Statman said. “You preserve the past, then you find your own voice in it, which leads to innovations in the music.”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)