An Evening with The Andy Statman Trio
By Scott Tichenor
August 8, 2012 - 8:00 pm
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Andy Statman with his Kimble Mandolin. Photo credit: Arianys Wilson - www.nanynany.com
It's Tuesday, July 31 and I'm standing in front of the Charles Street Synagogue in the West Village, New York City. I'm here to attend a performance by the Andy Statman Trio in the venue that has served as their home base since 1999. A number of years have passed since my only other visit and I've decided to share the experience.
I arrive just after 8:00 p.m. knowing seating is limited and there's an 8:30 start time. By 8:15 I begin to wonder if the gig has been cancelled, and by 8:20 there are 25-30 people lined up outside a building that's still locked. They look unconcerned so I go with the flow. Punctuality can be a very loosely observed phenomenon in the hands of musicians.
At 8:26 Andy and his long-time friend and Charles St. Synagogue president Herman Lowenhar arrive in a small compact car. The building is unlocked and a hand-lettered sign with the words "Bluegrass Tonight" and a drawing of Andy with mandolin is hung on a fence in front of the building.
We file into the narrow basement where the concert will be held. The crowd organizes their own seating by moving chairs away from a long table facing the wall. No one seems to mind and in a few minutes everyone is happily seated and ready for the music to begin.
While waiting, I introduce myself to Herman to ask a few questions to satisfy the needs of this article. Without pause the first words out of his mouth are, "let me see your fingertips." I hold up my left hand. "You have callouses. I knew you were a mandolin player." He comes off as gruff, but it's all a ruse. Before the evening is over — and late into the night after the gig — we'll spend a lot of time together and I'll realize I'm in the presence of a remarkable human being. Just short of 80 years old, he's been associated with the synagogue longer than anyone seems to know for sure. I don't ask, but it's clear he has likely witnessed nearly every performance at this location. Andy is a national treasure to Herman, and before the evening is over I'll find that sentiment is shared by many in attendance.
Photo credit: George Padilla.
The Charles Street Synagogue/Andy Statman Trio experience is in sharp contrast to the area. The building is sandwiched between impeccable brownstones in the trendy West Village. It's a tree-lined residential neighborhood sprinkled with high end shops on adjoining streets catering to the affluent. Cars parked here favor Mercedes, Lexus, BMW and at least one Jaguar. Attractive thirty something women in groups that pass for Sex In The City look alikes share tables at small corner restaurants with outdoor seating. They're nursing blush wines or martinis, decked out in fashionable summer dress. After all, it is Tuesday. TV and Broadway mega-stars Sarah Jessica Parker and husband Matthew Broderick make their home a few doors from the synagogue. Herman tells me he's on a first name basis with Sarah. "Lovely lady, lovely," he says, nonchalantly. Dubious, I confirm this fact, but people who know him tell me Herman is a friend to everyone. Later that evening as we lock the building well after midnight, Herman bids goodnight by name to a homeless man making camp on the Synagogue steps. "Goodnight, Herman," the homeless man replies.
Herman Lowenhar at the Charles Street Synagogue. Photo credit: Scott Tichenor.
At 8:55 the lights dim and the trio lines up in front of the narrow room. "I believe this is performance #627. The first was December 11, 1999," Herman announces. At 9:00 sharp he closes the rear door leading into the basement. "We don't have a liquor license." Bottles appear, although it's unclear who provided them. Libations are shared, passed between audience members in small plastic cups.
The music begins with Andy launching into a mandolin solo riffing on what's an instantly recognizable traditional tune. He's suggesting the melody at times, coaxing bits of it here and there. The rest of the trio joins in after a few minutes. The piece builds. It's inside, it's outside. There are complex lines leading into territory I clearly won't attempt to describe because I can't. Each member solos. The band is engaging in their signature live improvisation, always a part of an Andy Statman performance. Andy, Jim Whitney on bass and Larry Eagle on percussion weave their way through the tune for a good 15 minutes — quite a feat in my opinion. Andy rarely stops playing, moving easily from lead to rhythm to sounds that are percussive in quality. And it's interesting, tastefully handled, sometimes with humor.
The tune abruptly ends with a riff from the Monroe book. Applause follows. Andy, who had his back to the audience facing bass and drums turns and says with a smile, "well, that was Turkey In The Straw." The audience laughs. The entire evening is like this, a mix of extended improvisation, a few cuts from his recent double-CD Old Brooklyn and original compositions yet unnamed. At one point Larry Eagle launches into a surf beat. Andy jumps in for what sounds like a lost Beach Boys original. They're enjoying it all and share a laugh once it's finished. "What was that?" someone asks. "We don't have a name for it," Andy says, but it's clear it's part of their repertoire. Unfortunate for fans of his clarinet playing, Andy has a technical problem with his instrument and only plays one piece, apologizing for what he says is a needed repair job.
Bill Monroe's 100th Birthday Celebration
Andy and the trio hosted a party celebrating Bill Monroe's birthday in 2011 in the basement of the Charles St. Synagogue. Photo credit: George Padilla.
After the gig I ask Andy what makes the Charles Street Synagogue special. "Years ago I was looking for a regular place to gig and I approached Herman. He said, sure, come on over and let's try it. At first we worked Mondays upstairs in the temple. Sometimes it was a quartet or quintet with a piano or guitar but it became clear to me that having a chordal instrument limited us, and it was too loud and the neighbors didn't like it. We moved to the basement and over the years I've performed as a duo or trio and finally settled on a trio. I need to play with guys that understand and can play traditional music but who are also fluent in improvisation and I couldn't have two better guys to play with than Larry and Jim.
"This space has been a Godsend for me. I honestly don't know where I'd be without it. To be successful, musicians need to perform on a frequent basis and this has been the outlet that provided what we needed." I ask him if it's an incubator where they feel free to stretch out and take chances. "Absolutely," he replies. It's that spirit that makes a performance here something you can't begin to imagine.
Many famous artists have made the trek here to sit in with Andy and his group to share the magic. A short list includes Ricky Skaggs, David Grisman, Jon Scholle, Noam Pikelny, Matt Glaser and Mark O'Connor. I know the list is much longer but there's a line of people waiting to chat with Andy. Plus, Herman is hanging around and I'm interested in visiting with him.
The musicians are paid for their efforts by a pass of plate. Entrance to an evening of incredible live acoustic music comes with no obligation. Herman is manning one such plate. I toss in a $20 bill. He hands back a $5 bill. I'm confused. "What's this," I ask? Clearly enjoying the perplexed look on my face, Herman says, "change." "Why," I ask, bewildered. He turns, laughing. Classic Herman, but later that evening after the building is empty, in serious moments he will be near tears barely able to speak while recounting life's experiences and sharing stories of his Jewish faith. Two new friends enjoy a special evening together. I find out later many people have had this magical experience with him.
Was it just me or do others feel the same about an Andy Statman performance in this space? Seated next to me is George Padilla. A mandolin player, he's here with a large group of friends celebrating his birthday. He sought Andy out for lessons when he first moved here to attend Columbia University. Now running his own start-up after leaving graduate school he returns to Charles Street as time permits. The smile never left his face throughout the evening and it was apparent he enjoyed sharing the Charles St. experience with his friends.
"I returned Thursday night," George told me when I phoned him the following week. "Jim (Whitney) was out of town and a bunch of Andy's musician friends showed up and it was a totally different from Tuesday. Everything from traditional bluegrass to honkytonk and some duets with Larry. I've been to quite a few performances and no two have ever been alike, and everyone there seems to really have a keen appreciation for this kind of craft. That and the sense of hospitality when you're in the building... it's such a remarkable experience."
Aaron Goldberg, a mandolin player now making his home in Dallas has just flown in to attend the gig. He's trying to find a way to get the Trio to Texas for a series of shows.
"In January, 1998 I was a student in Rabbinical college here. I happened to hear on the radio that Andy would be playing so I decided to go down and check it out. I had always loved music, but I was completely spellbound throughout the concert. There seemed to be no separation between musician and instrument — the one was the other," Aaron said.
"From there I followed him to a concert series at a bookstore and eventually to Charles Street. Along the way there was spectacular music as Andy experimented with a quartet, quintet, and then finally the trio. As the time went on I found that I was listening more and more to the mandolin. I was amazed on the nights that Andy played solo or as a duet with Larry, at the way the mandolin seemed to play rhythm, melody and harmony all at one time, literally filling the room with sound.
"Over time, the concerts became (and still are) a way for me to get away from the hustle of life, sit back, close my eyes, and just let the music flow through me and reflect. Every chance I have, few and far between now, I try to see the trio in action. In the 13 years since the trio formed, they've melded into a singular unit. There's always something new and amazing with each concert. Some tunes I've heard them play close to a hundred times. Never once was it the same. The music seems to flow between them. It can be reflective and deeply spiritual in one moment and take your breath away with the speed and agility of a finely tuned sports car (literally in Old Brooklyn) in the next."
Andy's Kimble mandolin is an incredible instrument with warm woody Loar attributes. I had a chance to test it out before the show and it sounded amazing. This is an instrument that has been played a lot. Lynn Dudenbostel had the pleasure of performing some maintenance on it at the most recent Mandolin Symposium and provided input on the experience:
"Early in the week at the Mandolin Symposium, Andy came to me to check his fret wear and inquire about reshaping the neck a bit. As you might imagine, the fret wear was pretty evenly spread over the entire fingerboard! We discussed fret wire size and he opted for a bit larger fret than what was on it. We used an 0.080 x 0.040 high "banjo" wire, which seems to be very popular these days. Andy made an appointment for Wednesday afternoon. He arrived about 3:30 and I began the fret work. He was fascinated by the work and stayed with me almost the entire time. Andy is great company! Once the fret job was finished, he played for a while and decided we should proceed with the neck profile work. I believe in taking things one step at a time. He had been told it may change the tonal character of the instrument, but I felt that in comparison to the mass of the neck, we'd be removing a very, very small percentage. No thickness was removed, just some off the sides to make a gentle vee. I would scrape and sand, he would play, back and forth until it suited him. I sealed the neck with a very thin coat of epoxy and let it cure for a while. He also had me install a couple more position markers in the upper end of the fingerboard at the 17th fret and one higher (I don't remember the location of the other). I wrapped up the work about 8:20 that evening and he played it in the nightly concert less than an hour later! Andy's Kimble F-5 is a wonderful sounding instrument and I don't believe the reshaping of the neck changed the tone. Andy has really bonded with the Kimble and he related to me that it has opened up new avenues to explore in his music. I think Andy and his Kimble make a great pair!"
— Lynn Dudenbostel
Dudenbostel Stringed Instruments
Days after the gig those close to me all know the story about the Charles St. experience and I'm already looking forward to returning to the city this Fall and another chance to witness what can only be described as a happening, a sort of spontaneous private/public party. Unfortunately, in the process of taping video and taking pictures for this article I managed to fill up my iPhone's storage space and it went into restore mode, meaning I lost it all because I had to wipe the entire phone and install all new software. The only item I managed to save was the picture of Herman I'd texted to a friend. Although I was sorely disappointed in this turn of events, the reality of it all is that no image or video can capture the experience of an evening here. My memory will not be dimmed as a result.
Here's my advice: if you're ever in the area, make it a point to spend an evening here. In a city that can be incredibly cold and cruel, being in the company of Andy, Herman and the Charles St. Synagogue will warm your heart for a long time. It's an experience I'll never forget.
© Mandolin Cafe
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August 08, 2012 07:25 PM
An interesting write up! Scott, Andy Statman comes on a regular basis to the Mandolin Symposium, which will be celebrating it's 10th anniversary next June. Maybe you can
Santa Cruz, CA
August 08, 2012 07:26 PM
Great reporting Scott--thanks. Would love to go there sometime.
I last saw Andy at the old Camp Springs, NC Bluegrass Festival in the mid/late 70's, with Breakfast Special.--what great show! You can imagine the comments of the hard core BG fans when Andy switched to clarinet.
August 08, 2012 08:46 PM
Nice write up, Scott. It's hard to put into words, but seeing Andy's trio is always a pleasure and often a surprise.
August 08, 2012 08:56 PM
Great review Scott... other than the actual sounds I think you captured an evening in Andyland just perfectly. Wish I had been there!
August 08, 2012 09:10 PM
What a great story - it reminded me of the experience Nancy and I had at the synagogue.
In February 2007, Andy came to Wisconsin and did a workshop in our home. People came from all over - including Don Julin from Michigan - in a blinding snow storm. It was a great session and I discovered what a warm person Andy is. He had just received the Kimble and it was pretty raw sounding, but it was clear that it would develop into one of Will's finest mandolins.
We traveled to New York in March of 2009 and I called Andy to ask what nights they had shows. He seemed genuinely excited that we were coming. We arrived at the Charles St. synagogue on a Monday night, if memory serves, and saw the "Bluegrass Tonight" sign, though it was nowhere as fancy as the one you have pictured. We entered the basement "concert hall" that I thought more resembled a storage room. There were around 25 seats and, of course, Herman was there to greet everyone and extoll the virtues of Andy and the trio. Andy was getting ready for the show and greeted us like long lost family. He was excited for me to play the Kimble and I was totally stunned! I was at Mandolin Bros. earlier in the day and played a near perfect Loar, a stunning blond Collings and a Giacomel J5 and it bested all of them.
Herman offered me a Scotch (sorry, the single malts are gone) and I accepted but he would take no payment. We were given front row seats and when he introduced the show (from the back) he said that Jim Whitney could not be there. He apologized but suggested that it could actually be an advantage because it would allow for more and greater improvisation from Andy and Larry. He also asked for contributions and mentioned that $15 would be a very nice amount - if you could afford it. As I was counting out my money, a hand came to rest on my shoulder and Herman's voice warned, "Your money is not accepted here."
The concert that followed was spectacular - freely improvised - sometimes beginning with a bit of a riff that Andy played on his mandolin, augmented by the rhythms of Larry's percussion - sometimes a familiar melody taken to the stratosphere. The only thing bluegrass was a blindingly fast straight up version of Back Up and Push as an encore. Everything was totally musical, endlessly interesting and ranging from soulful to spiritual. One of the greatest evenings of music and culture in memory. Thanks for bringing it back.
August 08, 2012 10:22 PM
Quote from mando Nick: An interesting write up! Scott, Andy Statman comes on a regular basis to the Mandolin Symposium, which will be celebrating it's 10th anniversary next June. Maybe you can join us. Nick Royal Santa Cruz, CA End Quote
Nick~ Next year will be 2013, and the first mandolin symposium was in 2004. Throw away that calculator.. ;)
August 08, 2012 10:57 PM
Great story Scott! I got to hang with Andy a fair amount this year at the Symposium and hope to make it to NY for a Charles Street performance. Andy is a very special mandolin player and human being.
August 09, 2012 08:41 AM
This just strenthens my resolve to go to NYC and see them in person. A bucket list item for sure.
August 09, 2012 09:08 AM
Quote from mandopixie:
Nick~ Next year will be 2013, and the first mandolin symposium was in 2004. Throw away that calculator.. ;) End Quote
04, 05, 06, 07,08,09,10, 11,12,13
August 09, 2012 09:29 AM
Nice article Scott, though I believe any city can be "cold and cruel". I need to get down there for a show. The hand drawn poster is perfect and says it all.
August 09, 2012 09:38 AM
Re: An Evening with The Andy Statman Trio
This just strenthens my resolve to go to NYC and see them in person. A bucket list item for sure.
How about picking me up on the way?
August 09, 2012 11:07 AM
Thanks a ton, Scott, for that wonderful article. I am lucky to live not so far from NYC. I have to make it one of these days. I know Andy from way back in the 1970s bluegrass and old time scene but haven't seen him play recently.
August 09, 2012 02:58 PM
A fine tribute to a great musician, and a caring, patient teacher. I'm embarrassed to say that I live in New York, and haven't seen him in concert yet, though I've been to his home. I will make a point of doing so now. Thanks Scott for reminding me how much I'm missing.
August 09, 2012 08:10 PM
Andy's Kimble needed a refret already??? I think that he's only had it for a few years now, but of course, the lifespan of frets is measured in notes, rather than years. Given the way that Andy plays ...
August 10, 2012 06:28 AM
Lovely piece, Scott. My favorite aspect of all this is how a truly great musician is happiest playing in a low-key, extremely informal environment. The people are just happy to be there, and Andy's just happy to be playing. Magic.
August 11, 2012 05:32 AM
This makes me want to have a little holiday to myself. Plane from Scotland to New York to see Andy Statman? Sounds like it's worth twice the price. Nice article Scott.
August 11, 2012 10:28 AM
Quote from Russ Jordan:
04, 05, 06, 07,08,09,10, 11,12,13
Count 'em!~ End Quote
Oops - I'll be washing the egg off my face now..
August 11, 2012 12:25 PM
I first saw Andy Statman in Buffalo at the U of B when he guest appeared with Bela Fleck and the Flecktones. He pretty much stole the show. Not an easy thing to do on that stage. After that I started to play mandolin myself. I hope to see him at the shul in November when I visit NY City. BTW great article
August 15, 2012 10:55 AM
Quote from Marcus CA:
Andy's Kimble needed a refret already??? I think that he's only had it for a few years now, but of course, the lifespan of frets is measured in notes, rather than years. Given the way that Andy plays ... End Quote
Remember what he did to his old Gibson!
August 15, 2012 12:01 PM
Quote from Santiago:
Remember what he did to his old Gibson! End Quote
What did he do to his old Gibson (aside from playing the hell out of it and the mojo into it)?
August 15, 2012 01:14 PM
Quote from mandopixie: What did he do to his old Gibson (aside from playing the hell out of it and the mojo into it)? End Quote
A picture is worth...
August 15, 2012 05:28 PM
Quote from Jim Garber: A picture is worth... End Quote
He played it, then!
August 18, 2012 02:17 PM
Because of Scott's article, I caught Andy's show on Thursday night (8/16) during my coinciding first-ever visit to NYC. I can say that Scott did an excellent job of capturing the atmosphere, the personalities, the music, the neighborhood, and so on. I have just a couple of additional comments.
I am an avid mandolin fan, the mandolin having taken over an enormous and rewarding part of my life the last fifteen years or more. Nevertheless, Andy's spectacular clarinet playing on Thursday night was every bit as enjoyable to me as was his over-the-top mandolin work. My wife, a professional musician, was absolutely floored by Andy's clarinet playing. So consider yourself fortunate if you catch Andy in concert when he has his clarinet along.
Before the concert began I met fellow Mandolin-Café member, Steve, who also was at the concert as a result of Scott's article. Steve went to the concert expecting more of a traditional bluegrass sound, but was thrilled to have his spectrum of mandolin appreciation stretched significantly by Andy's unique approach to the mandolin and to bluegrass. Hopefully Steve will chime in here as well.
Prior to last Thursday night I had never met Andy. What a genuine and nice fellow he is. Several of the above Posts address Andy's great personality in one way or another, so I won't say more here.
Herman is not only a treasure, he is a kick in the pants with an endearing personality and great stories. A person would be hard-pressed to find a kinder person than Herman. After our visiting with him for quite a long time after the concert, my wife casually asked Herman for directions to the nearest subway stop for our getting back uptown (the synagogue is downtown). Rather than leave anything to chance, Herman insisted on walking us the three blocks to the subway stop, entertaining us with insight and stories along the way. As we bid a fond farewell to Herman at the top of the subway stairs I found myself wishing the walk with him had lasted another ten blocks or so.
So bottom line: Yes, do indeed make plans to attend one of Andy's concerts at the synagogue-53 Charles St. in West Village (easy to find). Surely the experience will stay with you for a lifetime. If like me (like I was, that is), you are intimidated about the prospect of visiting NYC, then don't be. NYC is a terrific place to visit... heck, I would move to Manhattan permanently if I thought I could afford to do so.
August 18, 2012 04:09 PM
Quote from mandopixie: What did he do to his old Gibson (aside from playing the hell out of it and the mojo into it)? End Quote
i played Andy's legendary snakehead mandolin right before he acquired it in basically "brand new" condition... it was pristine. that mandolin sounded fantastic before Andy ever touched it... it was just an exceptionally great mandolin... as some of them, of course, are. that mandolin, like Bill's F5, David's Crusher, Sam's Hoss... etc... is just one of those eternally notorious instruments!
December 01, 2012 10:49 AM
Article about Andy in NY Times:
June 06, 2013 11:46 PM
Attended performance #661 with about 24 others this evening and a grand time was had by all. Andy tells me he's about a month into his new Kimble mandolin, a two-point, shown below. I got a chance to play it after the gig and it's a real beast of a mandolin. One-piece back, slight radiused frets. Sounded like an 80 year old mandolin. Apparently Will traded back in part for Andy's old F mandolin and it may be for sale at some point. There's a mandolin that's going to sound incredible.
Uploading a very large video of one mandolin piece, Anthem, and as soon as it's online I'll link to it. As it is, almost 1:00 a.m. and the video is only about 40% uploaded after 30 minutes so will add it tomorrow.
June 07, 2013 07:33 PM
I've always lusted after Wills 2 pointers. Easily one of the best looking mandolins out there.But I thought he had stopped making them. I guess not.
June 07, 2013 08:13 PM
He's been back to making them for a couple of years now... visually stunning and mellifluously musical!
June 08, 2013 10:17 AM
No one breaks in a mandolin like Andy Statman, but was there anything left for Will to sell?
Will makes beautiful instruments.
June 08, 2013 02:23 PM
That was a great night Scott! Of course I didn't realize it at the time, but my sister and I and several friends were sitting right next to you. It was amazing how many styles Andy could exemplify and then tear apart and make completely his own in the space of an hour and a half. Also the only show I've ever been to that doubled as a slivovic tasting, but I hope it's not my last.
June 08, 2013 07:16 PM
Quote from john.m: That was a great night Scott! Of course I didn't realize it at the time, but my sister and I and several friends were sitting right next to you. It was amazing how many styles Andy could exemplify and then tear apart and make completely his own in the space of an hour and a half. Also the only show I've ever been to that doubled as a slivovic tasting, but I hope it's not my last. End Quote
John, I had very little of the sliv but as I was aware, it's a might potent beverage. Yowza!
June 09, 2013 11:27 PM
I am going to make it down to the synagogue one of these days. I catch him at Barbés when I can though. I can't wait to hear his new mando!
The only Kimble I've played is the blonde one at Retrofret. What a stunner. The action was super high but they let me lower it after I requested to! That place is great.
Perhaps the only thing I can criticize about Will's mandos is his choice of font for the headstock. It's one of the stock cursive fonts and I think it looks a bit tacky but that's just me. Nitpicking aside, obviously the sound is what matters and his mandos certainly have no shortage of that!
Looking forward to checking out the video.
June 13, 2013 08:16 AM
I agree about the font on the inlay - that's why I had Tom Ellis help me revise it a couple of years ago. I am satisfied with it now.
August 10, 2014 08:25 PM
So: Sarah Jessica Parker and husband Matthew Broderick: bad. Homeless person sleeping on the synagogue steps: good.
It must feel real righteous to have these values, and easy too, since you live out of town.
Idea: if you think the homeless person is so good, why don't you invite him to sleep on your doorstep?
On another topic: Andy Statman is a total genius. We New Yorkers are fortunate to have him and this series of performance nearby.
August 10, 2014 09:49 PM
I can't make any sense at all of the post above (#35). And I think I just wasted 2 minutes of my life trying.
August 10, 2014 10:21 PM
I am with you, Brad. I even went to the old NY Times article and could find no references to homeless people or the celebrities mentioned.
August 11, 2014 05:37 PM
Quote from BradKlein: I can't make any sense at all of the post above (#35). And I think I just wasted 2 minutes of my life trying. End Quote
And yet, somehow, I can't stop reading it, over and over again....fascinating...indeed, who "lives out of town"?
Sorry, couldn't help myself ;)
August 11, 2014 05:53 PM
Quote from Amanda Gregg: And yet, somehow, I can't stop reading it, over and over again....fascinating...indeed, who "lives out of town"?
Sorry, couldn't help myself ;) End Quote
I am there too. I guess when someone only posts 4 times in 7 years they make each one really count!
August 13, 2014 12:19 PM
Check out article in the OP post #1. Has the relevant material but doesn't fully answer the statement: ("So: Sarah Jessica Parker and husband Matthew Broderick: bad."
I suspect he may have taken exception with the parting comment re NYC.
The greatest city ever tho. Cold, cruel or otherwise
August 16, 2014 07:10 PM
so whats not to like.