Mandolin-playing duo plucks tunes from Jewish past

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David Grisman, one of the country's foremost mandolin players, nearly flubbed "Shalom Aleichem."

It wasn't that the three-time Grammy-nominee could not play the centuries-old Shabbat song. Grisman, 50, was crying.

"I was just weeping," he says. "It was a deep thing."

That "thing" was a five-day session Grisman — who usually fronts the David Grisman Quintet — pulled together at his Dawg Studios in Mill Valley in 1992. Joining him was one of the country's leading klezmer musicians, clarinetist and mandolin player Andy Statman, plus seven other top pros.

What emerged is "Songs of Our Fathers," a stunning 12-piece compilation of traditional Jewish melodies that range from haunting, centuries-old liturgies to joyous wedding dance tunes.

The CD, some of which Grisman will perform at the Marin JCC Saturday, June 24, delivers a gripping history of Jewish music. And in its breadth of influences, the music defies labeling.

"It's a klezmer-influenced, American style of Jewish instrumental music," says Statman.

What makes this Jewish CD different from all others?

"Unfortunately, Jewish music has become a prisoner of pop music, as many other musical forms have," adds Statman. "This is an unabashedly Jewish record."

Matching the music's beauty is the CD's packaging; a cover picture of Grisman and Statman with their instruments on an overcast Northern California beach, the album's title adorned with shofars, menorot and a Star of David. Inside is a booklet telling the story of each song accompanied by never-before-seen photos of Jewish life in Eastern Europe and beyond.

The unusually rich packaging "gives an idea where the music is coming from," says Statman.

For Grisman, the music springs from a traditional 1950s Conservative Jewish upbringing in Passaic, N.J. After attending New York University, he moved to California in 1970, formed the Dave Grisman Quintet, and worked with such major players as Maria Muldaur, Bonnie Raitt, Linda Ronstadt, James Taylor and jazz violinist Stephan Grapelli. Most recently he collaborated with the Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia on "Not for Kids Only," a folk collection.

It was at NYU that Statman first approached Grisman for mandolin lessons, after seeing Grisman play bluegrass. They became friends and in 1978 worked together on the score for the film "King of the Gypsies." In 1980, they teamed up for awildly improvisational album, "Mandolin Abstractions," that became anavant-garde classic.

Five years ago, Grisman founded his own label, Acoustic Disc, and soon decided to explore the music of his Jewish heritage. He asked Statman to join him.

It was a natural choice. Klezmer "is in my blood," Grisman says, and Statman "is a master at it."

In the 1970s, Statman had pursued a longtime love of Yiddishkeit by playing klezmer music. He became a protege of one of the last klezmer kings, Dave Tarras, and in 1980 recorded "Flatbush Waltz," a klezmer piece of his own.

Klezmer also led Statman further into Judaism, he says, for the music went "hand in hand with my spiritual growth."

Today Statman, 45, of Queens, is an observant Jew and perhaps the country's leading klezmer clarinetist. The music literally sustains him.

"For a Jew, it can get as close as your next breath," Statman says.

So Grisman invited him to the Bay Area for "Songs of Our Fathers." They added guitarist Enrique Coria, tuba player Zacharia Spellman, bassist Jim Kerwin, arco bassist Edgar Meyer, cellist Larry Granger, violinist and violist Irene Sazer, and drummer Hal Blaine. (Born Chaim Zalman, Blaine has played on such classics as Elvis Presley's "Jailhouse Rock" and Simon and Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Waters.")

The musicians picked up their instruments together for the first time one Saturday night — after havdallah — at about 10 p.m. They played until nearly 5 a.m. the next day, long past the tears. And they nailed the tunes.

"It was just one of those experiences where everybody knew we were getting somewhere," Grisman says.

Statman says that during the sessions, "Everything just clicked immediately. "As the only musician familiar with the music, he found the others picked up the beat fast.

Statman, who sprinkles his English liberally with Yiddish, says that for Jews, the music "really speaks to your neshamah [soul]. It goes right there."

"Songs of Our Fathers" lays the Jewish heart bare. The songs stay close to the original versions, spare, lacking adornment.

"The music is very powerful, but also subtle," Statman says. "Klezmer produces a lot of feelings and images."

That was true for Grisman. The songs are "the total summation of the sadness of the Jewish people," he says — but not just that. "As my father-in-law says,`There's pain, and there's parties.'"