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Adam on arts and culture: December 2012

Chanukah's rededication to revisited, reinvented, and radical Jewish music

The Klematics image
The Klezmatics.

Chanukah celebrations remind us to preserve our heritage and keep it alive for our children and future generations. The Maccabees of old rededicated the Temple so that the light of the Menorah would last longer and ensure Judaism survived.  This month I focus on acts that have preserved Jewish music and helped it to evolve and remain vibrant. These musical Maccabees deserve a listen; hear them live as they perform in the Chicago area this month:

12/5 Andy Statman Trio @ Old Town School of Folk Music

According to New Yorker Magazine, "Andy Statman, clarinet and mandolin virtuoso, is an American visionary." That's appropriate praise considering his career, comprised of four decades balancing zeal for tradition and authenticity with improvisation and exploration, has been nothing less than prophetic. The Grammy-award winner has released 20 albums and recorded and/or performed with Bob Dylan, Itzhak Perlman, Stéphane Grappelli, Paul Shaffer, and The Grateful Dead.

Statman's post-war Queens youth was steeped in a centuries-old tradition of cantors, composers, and musicians filling the family. Their record collections and relationships with klezmer, big band, Tin Pan Alley and Hasidic music filtered through a mid-late 60's coming of age influenced by folk and rock. After gaining a fondness for bluegrass heard over short-wave radio broadcasts, Statman used bar mitzvah money to buy a banjo, learning to play it, guitar, and eventually mandolin.  

After sitting in with bands at venues and busking in Washington Square Park, he played a critical role in the experimental bluegrass scene with groups Country Cooking and Breakfast Special. By now he also played with blues legend David Bromberg's band and formed a creative friendship with David Grisman, with whom he later played together with the Grateful Dead and recorded the album "Songs of our Fathers."

By the ripe age of 18 Statman's interest turned learning saxophone to play free jazz. This prompted him to also take up clarinet, leading to interest in traditional Greek, Balkan, and his rediscovery of Klezmer. In 1975, 25 year-old Statman began returning to his Jewish heritage both musically and ritually. Statman set out to keep alive his musical heritage and became protégé to NEA National Heritage Fellow and a legendary klezmer clarinetist Dave Tarras.  

Statman's first album, Jewish Klezmer Music, sparked a klezmer music revival still reverberating today. The second, Flatbush Waltz, collected post-bebop improvisations and ethnically-inspired compositions.  The tension between these poles of preservation and improvisation is at the heart of Statman's creativity.  His most recent work, however, explores the spirituality of centuries-old Hasidic melodies sharing common roots in Nusach with klezmer music. Statman has become one of its leading figures, but while some explore authentic forms and instrumentation and others endless possibilities of its evolution, Statman has sought-and brought-spirituality to klezmer.

Beyond being a Jewish counterpart to A Love Supreme-era John Coltrane, Statman has literally adopted a religious path as an Orthodox Jew, adding personal meaning to already profound music. Earlier this year, he followed in his mentor's footsetps and was named a National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellow.  The Andy Statman Trio appears at Old Town School of Folk Music on Wednesday, December 5th at 8:30pm, 4454 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago.

12/16 The Klezmatics @ Evanston Space

Formed in New York's East Village in 1986, The Klezmatics have released nine critically acclaimed albums, including their Grammy Award-winning album Wonder Wheel, which set previously unrecorded Woody Guthrie lyrics to original music. Having toured extensively around the world, they've added Balkan, Latin and even Arabic musical influences into their eclectic take on Klezmer. Yiddish lyrics, beautifully lilting over this melange by vocalist Lorin Sklamberg, are removed from the shtetl and land in more universal headspace. While rooted in Jewish tradition, the band's musical approach is not constrained by the klezmer label.

The Klezmatics add a significant seasoning of progressive values, covering everything from human rights to religious fundamentalism and other social issues in interpretations of traditional tunes and original compositions alike. Their klezmer is not pastiche, but a living and expansive demonstration of how the music and culture of our labor-organizing, Workman's Circle membership-holding, Yiddish-speaking grandparents remains relevant. In the wake of an election focused on economic and social justice, the Klezmatics are a band the #Occupy generation needs to hear. They perform Sunday, Dec. 16th at Evanston Space, 1245 Chicago Ave., Evanston.

12/30 Maxwell Street Klezmer Band @ City Winery

At year's end following the holiday sales but before the calendar change to 2013, stop and have a little brunch and klezmer.  Rooted in a more domestic, Midwestern approach to Jewish music is Chicago's own Maxwell Street Klezmer Band.  They appear as a pared-down quartet around violin virtuoso Alex Koffman.  A brunch menu accompanies the music. Sunday, Dec. 30, 10:30 a.m. -1:00 pm at City Winery, 1200 W. Randolph St., Chicago.

For more tickets and information on these and other Jewish arts, music and culture events around Chicago, visit KFAR Jewish Arts Center's online community cultural calendar at May your holiday, and every day, be filled with light, joy, and and music.  Happy Chanukah!

Adam Davis is the founder and executive director of KFAR Jewish Arts Center, a leading presenter and advocate of contemporary Jewish arts, music, and culture programs in and around Chicago. For future arts suggestions and feedback, e-mail Adam at

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