You know the old fable of the blind men who use their sense of touch to try to describe an elephant. One man feels the elephant’s leg and says, “An elephant is like a tree.” Another grasps the trunk and declares, “An elephant is like a snake.” A third grips the tail and announces, “An elephant is like a rope.”

Trying to describe Andy Statman is a little like that. If you heard him in the early 1970s you’d say, “Andy Statman is the mandolin master in Country Cookin’, a cutting-edge newgrass band.” If you heard him in the 1980s and 1990s you’d say, “Andy Statman is an incredible clarinetist and a leader of the klezmer revival.” Both are true, though neither the two instruments nor the two genres are exactly kissin’ cousins. As for what Statman has been up to in the past decade — well, that’s almost impossible to label. He now belongs to that rarefied group, along with Bela Fleck, Edgar Meyer, and a handful of others, who have outgrown the styles in which they were steeped. They have listened widely and absorbed deeply, and they are now creating a borderless yet quintessentially American music that is unified by the improvisatory spirit of jazz and still bears the stamp of the great traditions from which it has sprung.

From the beginning of his musical schooling, Statman has apprenticed himself to musical giants. When, as a young teen, he decided to learn mandolin, he took his first lessons with David Grisman. Years later, when he gravitated to the clarinet by way of jazz saxophone lessons with the little-known but highly respected Richard Grando, he studied with Dave Tarras, the grand master of American klezmer. Statman’s musical studies eventually led him to more than just his cultural legacy: they took him back to the spiritual underpinning of the music he was playing, to the ecstatic devotional tradition of Hasidic Judaism.

I heard Statman at Hill Auditorium ten years ago when he came here as part of the klezmer extravaganza In the Fiddler’s House, featuring Itzhak Perlman. In an evening filled with mostly up-tempo, flashy, dance melodies, what I remember most vividly is Statman and Perlman’s simple, spare duet on “Shalom Aleichem,” a traditional song often sung in Jewish homes before the Friday night meal. Their instrumental rendition was so achingly exquisite that it made me weep. During the long and heartfelt ovation that followed, I could see many other people wiping their eyes.

Statman, who performs at the Ark on Monday, March 31, offers far more than merely his dazzling virtuosity, his daring improvisations, and the gorgeous liquid tone he draws from both his instruments. By tapping into his own deep spiritual roots and expressing them through his music, he enables each of us to connect to what is most true in our own unique heritage.

[Review published March 2008]