Andy Statman gets standing ovation at Chutzpah opener

Victoria Hanna
Andy Statman; Victoria Hanna. Photos: Chutzpah Fest

Andy Statman grew up just a few miles from my childhood home in New York City's Queens borough. Walking out on stage, he looked uncannily like Rabbi Silverman who drilled me in my Torah portion half a century ago -- lean, trimly bearded, balding under his black skullcap, slightly stooped in his grey three-button suit, the fringes of a prayer shawl dangling out from under his starched white shirt.

As he tried to warm up the Chutzpah Festival audience with a series of lame "polite Canadian" wisecracks, he spoke with the same nasal New York twang I grew up with. And when he picked up his clarinet, he cut loose with some of the same klezmer riffs that we danced to back at my Bar Mitzvah, .

But that's where the similarities ended. Unlike the ploddingly pedestrian house combo back at Temple Israel (Conservative) in Queens, Statman launched into wildly mystic flights of Chasidic ecstacy, davening (rocking back and forth) like a minyan stalwart at prayer.

His opening theme, he explained, derived from an "Edison cylinder" recorded by the pioneering inventor himself in a ghetto shul back at the very dawn of phonography. But in Statman's hands, it's turned into something as jaggedly daring and free as the most cutting-edge progressive jazz.

In this he was abetted by the other members of his trio. Bassist Jim Whitney got just about equal solo time. He contributed as much melodic line as he did continuo, bowing his instrument nearly as often as he plucked it. Physically, he couldn't be more different from the rabbinical Statman; if he has any Jewish analogue at all, it might be the mythic Golem, hulking and gangly with huge spatulate hands. More aptly, in line with his bluegrass musical roots, Whitney's raw-boned frame could be likened to one of Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha Snopes.

But he turns out to have a true klezmer touch, nostalgic and wry. In the more elegiac number She'er, attributed to a Chasidic rabbi in post-holocaust Israel, Whitney reached way down the fingerboard  to bring out the plangent possibilities of his instrument's contralto range -- rare in a bass solo. Drummer Larry Eagle supported these explorations with admirable discretion, often putting aside his drumsticks in favor of padded mallets, brushes and even bare fingers.

Whitney and Eagle were more in their "American roots" element for the second half of the program. That's when Statman stripped off his suit coat, rolled up his sleeves and traded in his clarinet for a mandolin. That instrument, too, has a long klezmer lineage. But the trio instead chose to exploit its wide-ranging imitative possibilities, playing everything from banjo breakdowns to lilting waltzes to piano blues to fiddling frenzies.

Despite the stunning virtuosity of the combo, these pieces struck me as more derivative, with less room for improvisation. The audience -- perhaps tiring of the running patter of Canuck jokes between sets -- seemed to flag a little, too. Even so, the group still commanded an ovation at the end. Let's hope the Statman Trio can be lured back for many a Chutzpah Fest to come.

The prior day's Chutzpah concert, by Israeli rapper Victoria Hanna, imposed a little more heavily upon Canadian politeness. Much of Hanna's appeal lay in her biography. As a sequestered girl-child in an ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem family, she grew up with a crippling stutter. Only through spoken-word art forms -- rap and hip hop -- was she able to regain her voice.

This "born-again" aspect of her music is reflected in its religious overtones. She favors Biblical and philosophical texts and Kabalistic wordplay with the letters/numerals of the Hebrew alphabet. Her gaunt stage presence, barefoot in a floor-length black sheath, well befits her mystical material.

For the therapeutic benefits of rapping we can only accord her a hearty mazel tov. But her voice was somewhat grating, the sound system over-amped, the stage lighting a lurid kaleidoscope of colored gels in a haze of machine generated stage smoke. And her scraggly sidemen, Yarden Erez, Roi Rabinovici and Giori Politi, provided listless,  random accompaniment on strings/accordion, bass and drums, respectively.

She opened with a hectoring hip-hop number in Aramaic, a language that's been effectively extinct for some 1500 years (although pidgin strains still survive among some Sephardim). She then segued into a Hebrew rendition of a line from the Song of Solomon ("I am black but comely, oh ye daughters...")

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