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As spring moves to summer, the common element seems to be that the bounds of "klezmer" have been sprung. One memorable feature is the new Yiddish albums that have roots in a variety of Ashkenazic music traditions, not necessarily (but not necessarily ignoring) klezmer. In particular, note preliminary reviews of "Mikveh" to go with my recent excited mention of Josh Waletzky's "Crossing the Shadows." And even where klezmer is a starting point (as in "Beyond the Pale"). But I also want to mention "Beyond the Pale" as exemplifying something new, that could only come about with the success of the revival and a new generation of musicians taking the music to new places.
Mikveh / (Traditional Crossroads CD 80702-4305-2).
This album has been long-awaited. Following a string of rare live performances in which we watched many of our favorite female musicians catch fire and play a music of the moment, performances grounded very much in feminism and women's stories, from Margot Leverett's angry denunciation of the "mekhitze" (the divider between men and women in an Orthodox shul) and a claiming of women's active place in Jewish life and culture, to Adrienne Cooper singing even better than she has sung before. (In these circles, that's a bit like saying that Barbra Streisand or Ella Fitzgerald outdid herself.) And that's before I mention Alicia Svigals or Loren Brody (co-founder of Kapelye and Balkan music maven) or Nicki Parrot (jazz) on fiddle, accordion and vocals, and bass, respectively.
Cooper's vocals on the opening "Royz Royz" (Rose, Rose) a hasidic-transformed song, in which love is once again an allegory for exile set the tone for something special, something not "Yiddish folk song," but neither "klezmer," rather, a new Jewish music, much as Brave Old World perform what Alan Bern calls "New Jewish Music." In this case, I also take care to note that this is new Jewish Women's music--that the music is as much informed by being arranged and performed by strong women, as by their mother's and foremother's traditions which brought them to this place.
In that vein, I note not only extraordinary instrumentals with Leverett's sublime clarinet, and Brody's wonderful accordion taking the lead on a "Gas nign" so wonderful as to sound better than the first time you heard it (and long before you became tired of hearing it), or Brody's revelatory singing in English on "Heart of the World" or "Borsht." Then Cooper and the band rethink "Vos vet zayn," an apocalyptic, "when will the Messiah come" lament in other hands, but here, cause for hope and anticipation that, yes, the time of good things is nigh, weaving Svigals violin and everyone's voices as Cooper, herself, soars and then Brody grounds it again as a joyous folk song.
For a few minutes I have a sense of music so tightly packed that I don't know whether to sit back and enjoy the amazing harmonies and melodies, or somehow hold myself from being pulled inside, into layers and layers of meaning and music and hope and spirituality and then, once again, dancing as at a wedding, just simple joy ... as if joy were ever so simple, so joyous. This is music as revelation. And then, and then, after tribute to the generations of Jewish music represented by klezmer Elaine Hoffman Watts, with a song learned from Watts' grandfather, there is once again, new Yiddish and English poetry, a song about miscarriage, the grief, the unspoken quiet tragedy.
If the album has a weak point, it is in the recording of "Eshes Khayil." This is a text celebrating the role of women in Jewish life, beautiful on the face, but which I have felt carries a subtext of something far less. To transform this text into a statement of women's valor would be something worth hearing. This reading is good, but not quite there. Others may find this far more successful than what my ears, colored by my own specific prejudices, heard. In any event, Svigals restful, quietly virtuosic "Mazl Tov" soon removes any negative feelings, such that the album closing with the quiet beauty of "Leyg dayn kop" (Rest your head) and the Americanized Bulgarian Village-ish harmonies between Brody, accompanied by the rest of the band, in "Di arbuzn" (the Watermelons), each with both English and Yiddish, ending with "Baleboste zisinke" (Sweet woman, hot mama, hot boss lady), featuring solos by all the musicians, if only to make one conscious of how incredibly tightly they have played together, and how they soar as they take their few seconds of solo. This is an album that took the century or two of playing and singing music that the five band-members, collectively, bring to this recording. It leaves one ready to listen again, and happier. It is as though one has dunked oneself, once, twice, thrice in the Mikveh, and arisen, cleansed, newly one, and fecund with the possibilities of the world. The band's website is at www.yiddishmusicians.com/mikveh.htm. [GRADE: A++]
Beyond the Pale / Routes. 2001, Borealis Recording Co., BCD134, www.borealisrecords.com.
This band takes a post-modern approach to what was once klezmer. The result, whether it be a romp with guest vocalist David Wall (Flying Bulgars) on a traditional Yiddish "Vodka" or "Vander Ich Mire Lustig" (Through the fields I'm strolling), or a relatively traditional "Roumanian Fantasy," or the excellent Eastern European-derived album opening instrumentals, "Eavesdropping" and "Icebreaker," is extremely satisfying. This is our listening and dance music of today. It is not a revived tradition, but rather music can be played when the tradition is alive and still evolving. In this case, because the band is good, and fits so tightly together, the result is a revelation of how good this can be, such that when we go from that aforementioned "Roumanian Fantasy" into a Middle Eastern percussive "Bulcharescu", it fits (or, at worse, seems plausible, or possible).
I should also mention the role of the mandolin in this particular ensemble. The usual role of the mandolin in a klezmer revival band has been either to add bluegrassy elements to the music, or to add some percussion to a traditional sound. Except for the amazing Jeff Warschauer (see "The Singing Waltz"), I don't feel that people have explored this non-traditional klezmer instrument. Here, the take is very much influenced by Dave Grisman's "Dawg Music," perhaps by the Statman-Grisman "Songs of my Fathers" collaboration. This is especially apparent on the very Grisman-influenced "Gyration". The album then closes with an impressionistic doina--quieter, and much more modern jazz than Romanian, leading into a delightful, tsimbl-accompanied Honga dance.
This album is a rare second-generation revival album--an album expertly grounded, and very much of our specific time. It is, as I started off saying, post-modern klezmer, in all the best senses. Not just "routes," but "roots." It is most especially a second-generation album that deserves a broader audience. As for me? Time to spend more time in Toronto again, obviously! [GRADE: A]
Theresa Tova / Telling Stories, 2000, TE001.
And now for something completely different! Actress Tova, who recently performed for then-President Clinton in Ragtime, as Emma Goldman, has taken Yiddish Theatre songs and transformed them to an incredibly wonderful cabaret format. This is theatre music as Molly Picon might be singing were she performing in Toronto today, rather than in the heyday of New York's Second Ave. After a somewhat overdone recording of what is presumably a grandmother talking, the album opens with a version of "Belz" that rivals other modern theatre renditions, such as Mandy Patinkin's, Tova continues with a well-considered and powerfully, beautifully sung set of Yiddish and Yiddish-American songs. Punctuated by little gems, such as the jazzy break at the end of "Leybke," this album is a treat for show music fans, through and through. This harks back to a more recent Jewish tradition, that of Yiddish Theatre, but is no less welcome for that. She presents the songs in impeccable, modern cabaret settings, with excellent accompaniment. Whether the songs are English translations of more poignant Yiddish, as in "Vu ahin zol ikh geyn?" (Tell me where should I go?), or pure Yiddish, whether the songs originated on Second Ave., or in the depression (her Yiddish version of "Brother can you spare a dime"), whether she sings alone, or accompanyed by the blessedly ubiquitous David Wall, as in "Spiel", this album is pure delight. [GRADE: A]
Atzilut / Souls on Fire: Music for the Kabbala, 1996, ArcMusic
Long before more recent bands such as Davka or Pharaoh's Daughter began working with Middle Eastern rhythms and Jewish spiritual music, Atzilut was exploring what they call "Music for the Kabbala." On this outing, the band even pulled in Arab
classical master musician Simon Shaheen, with from texts from the zohar, Isaac Luria, and other sources
in the Jewish mystical tradition. Cantor Jack Kessler's deep, resonant voice, playing against Shaheen's violin, and the entire ensemble, is amazing! The result is music that gets deeper the longer that you listen, but that is also a relaxing pleasure the first time through. The music, although primarily Middle Eastern in feel, also explicitly draws from klezmer, balkan, and Jewish folk traditions, as in a "Hallelu-Yah" that is, ecstatically, praise unto the Lord; as well as from Arabic music, as in the case of the Luria text welcoming the Sabbath and its mystic possibilities set to a melody by Sheikh Abd Al Rahim Al Masloub. [GRADE: A]
Tummel / Oy! 2001, TUMCD001.
Opening with a blast of excited noise and screams reminiscent of the New Orleans Klezmer AllStars, Tummel, is a high energy klezmer-inspired romp through modern dance music. The New Orleans-inspired bass line of their second number, "Baba ganoush overload," implies that this comparison is not accidental. Tummel is, indeed, the sound of an unrestrained party. There is something punkish in their appropriation, primarily of traditional klezmer, its transformation into something simpler and more direct, gaining energy in the process. They claim that they are taking dance music from 100 years ago, now "adapted for the modern mind!" And, despite the high energy level, the band appears to be reasonably tight. If I have a complaint, it is that the music has been appropriated and simplified, but I am not sure if there is depth to what has resulted. Energy and life are present, absolutely! But I find myself wanting more. And despite quiet moments such as "Kinder Yorn," or the "Doina for restless souls" leading into a quiet intro to the "Sherele," I ultimately began to feel battered. Whether that is a deeper, next album, or to see the band live, I cannot tell. If klezmer and excitement, with touches of balkan music and rock and modern live party music move you (and they should), then you'll be up and dancing with this disc. [GRADE: A-]
Atzilut / The Fourth World: Planetary Jewish Music, 1994, ArcMusic.
Opening with a very Arabic-sounding "Dror Yikra" (complete with the mass of fiddles all playing the same melody in the same key), this first Atzilut album features a wide spectrum of sephardi and mizrachi songs, along with some of Cantor Jack Kesler's original material. Heavily Middle Eastern in rhythm, the album makes a nice counter to the second album. Anyone who has listened to "Friday night at Bnei Yeshurun," or Pharoah's Daughter, will find this ecstatic and enchanting territory. Kessler, whose other band is the extremely kid-(and adult-) friendly "Klingon Klezmer," here applies a Middle Eastern touch even to a klezmer hongo (here called an "Onga"). Still, when all is heard, there are times when, as was the case with the Tummel album, reviewed above, I felt that this was a bit too much of muchness, good as it was. [GRADE: A-]
Banda Klezmer Brasil / Mishmash à brasileira, 2000? MCD World Music MCD 036
The idea of klezmer from Brazil is most attractive. After all, the Argentinian duo, Lerner and Moguilevsky play an intense and wonderful fusion of klezmer with South American jazz that is wowing audiences not only at home, but throughout Europe. Although Banda Klezmer Brasil does fuse some Brazilian styles in with their klezmer, they don't overcome an overall formal and arranged feel. Although there are flashes of spark mixed in with pieces such as the guitar runs on "Freilach - Choro" and the plaintive accordion at times heard on "Hora Nordestina," the overall effect is too regularized. Like all good dance music, the best of klezmer sounds less formal, more played to the audience at hand (even if, when recording in the studio, that audience is only in the minds of the band members). This is especially true with the vocals that, although well-sung, never seem to take off, even at their best, here, as on "Yidl mitn Fidl", which is held back, perhaps, by too predictable an arrangement. Even on the album's title track, the closing "Mishmash," one feels that there is well-played music that could, with a looser hand, be very exciting. Instead, the integration with Brazilian melodies feels forced, and the net result never surprises or excites. Still, one is confident that the music will get better from here. This documents an excellent start. Notes are in Portugese and English. [GRADE: B+]
Gerineldo / De fiestas y alegrías, Vol 1, 1992. TECNOSAGA KPD-10.897
Other than to document the pleasure of listening to this recording, there is little I can say. My knowledge of traditional Moroccan music, Jewish or otherwise, is nil. On the other hand, I can affirm that the musicians are playing in a style that is likelier to be authentic than the stagey, homogenized songs we hear from some more popular singers who use standard instrumentation (and sometimes, even inflection) to sing all music from all places. I can also point out that the band takes its name from the hero of a favored romance among the Sephardim, presented among this album's 26 cuts, in which the page gets the princess, keeps his head, and all ends happily. In addition to energy, enthusiasm, and high musicianship, the selection of songs conveys a wide, wide range of the music of Jews from Morocco. Indeed, three of the musicians are from Morocco, while two, including the non-Moroccan, wrote PhD theses on the subject. Judith Cohen, the non-Moroccan of the group, has since distinguished herself as an asiduous field recorder, with years of research in Spain and Portugal, combining an acid sense of humor and astounding ability to fascinate audiences. The group, itself, was formed in Montreal, and did considerable research among Moroccan Jews who had migrated to that city. Anyone who enjoys well-played music that sounds like it might actually have been played this way by those whose music it is, will definitely want to enjoy this album. I review it at this late date only because of a recent announcement that Gerineldo will be reforming for a performance at this coming fall's Vancouver Folk Festival. If I can encourage additional performances, so much the better! CD notes are in English and in Spanish. [GRADE: A]
Di Grine Kuzine / Feribot, 2001, T3 Records T3 003-2
I'm not sure what the new music that Di Grine Kuzine play, is. It clearly borrows strongly from klezmer and balkan music. It's great for dancing. The musicians are good, but not excellent. The ensemble work is infectiously happy, if a bit ragged. It is, in many ways, the klezmer-balkan equivalent of a jam band, where the band takes a riff and continues with it for a while, until it is time to move on to something new. The tuba gives the band the ability to pull off some great balkan brass sounds. But this is also a band that feels incomplete. The recording makes the band sound like it is among the kings of the club circuit, but not yet ready to move up to larger venues and better sound systems. Still, there is more happening here than just jamming. There is some very interesting use of movie effects and other pre-WWII dance artifacts. For the second time today, I find myself thinking of this music as "post-modern." Here, there are again a variety of appropriated artifacts (note that appropriation is not, to the best of my limited knowledge, a condition of post-modernism) are melded in true sound sample fashion to form something interesting, somewhat varied, and unusual, reasonably well-played, but true to its own tradition, not to those that came previous. I have to guess that this is where Europe's fascination with klezmer is ultimately going--to general world dance music with klezmer and balkan and even south american motifs as work to facilitate dancing and good times. The result, in this case, is far better than average, but still not convincing--at least, not on CD, and at least, not yet. Sometimes, things come close, as on the balkan brass/slow sections of the modern Israeli folk dance tune, "Nigun Atik", followed by a very "Wanderer's Song"-ish "Bavarski Cocek." Part of what bothers me, and part of what makes those two songs work better, is that I don't find myself enjoying the hoarse, stoned sound of the band's main vocalist. I am similarly entranced by the song, a wonderful take on a melody credited to Dave Tarras (with the title at least from Brandwein--I most prefer the non-klez moments on this number), "Spil es nokh amol, Karel." I'd love to hear what these guys are doing in a couple of years, after they've been playing non-stop club dates until it all fuses and they're tight enough to read each other's minds. Then, they'll be incredible. In the meantime, this is what we have. Listen carefully. This could be the future! [GRADE: A-]
Anthony Coleman & the Selfhaters Orchestra / The Abysmal Richness of the Infinite Proximity of the Same, 1998, Tzadik TZ7123
Coleman and the self-haters seem to be attempting to go beyond the chaos of seemingly unscripted avant garde music as though to transform it to a very Jewish cry of being. In a recent video documenting "Radical Jewish music, by Claudia Heuerrmann ("Sabbath in Paradise"), Coleman describes this transformation of krechtes to cry. On the Self-haters albums, Coleman pushes furthest--farther than his "Sephardic Tinge" albums, which are quite accessible, much farther than work such as the "Sabbath at Bnai Jeshurun" album he produced, which is both accessible and well-within known Jewish spirituality, perhaps even farther than my beloved "Disco by Night". But that's the point of looking for edges and pushing. Indeed, there are frequent expressions of this transformed cry, familiar from "Disco by Night," recurring, in a different context, in "Fifty-Seven Something," here followed by the tru'ot of a declaring, affirming trumpet, calling and answering itself, in strings tugging at the heart. In an e-mail exchange, Coleman points out that
"when literary people address writers like
Celan or Kafka or Benjamin they're willing to do the work to extract, analyse
and/or decipher tropes - tropes of Jewishness, for example ... but musical
criticism isn't, w/very rare examples, on a level where this is possible -
without some clear reference to that 'Klezmer sound' people just end up
saying 'What's Jewish about this?'." ... in the case of the Selfhaters ... I started from an
idea of born-again Jewish pride: 'Playing Klezmer brings me in touch w/my
roots' and all that - creating a relationship to E. European music out of a
wish, a hope, an idealized relationship to their personal histories. I asked
myself 'What about de-ethnicized Ethnic Pride? Pride in having been nowhere,
with nothing ... w/suburbs,TV, Christmas Trees, Station Wagons, Passover and
'Never Again.' What is can be more important to thematize than what we wish
Then, take a look at the instrumentation: Standard Klezmer: clarinet,
trombone, keyboard, drums - and look at the roles, look at the scales and the
phrases - consider all of that in relation to Webern's 'expressing a novel in
a single sigh', Beckett's theatre, DeKooning's women: abstractions where the
ghostly traces of figuration remain as hints to a past, hints to a narrative,
hints to a culture which no longer exists; read the quotes from Bellow and
Beckett which I used... and then there's the joke about all the businessmen
w/goyishe names who all turn out to be Cohens - my father (obviously) was one
of them.... the pain of de-ethnicized American
Jewish mediocrity (my relatives) contrasted w/knee-jerk self-hating urban
intellectual mainstreaming (my parents) led me on my various paths:
Yugoslavia as a surrogate home, Rad Jew, BJ, etc...but no transcendence for
me - at least, not yet...."
And I think that's the point. By stripping the extraneous, by driving to the bare bones of the music of our spheres, hinting at his goals with expressive titles such as the title track, or "His Masquerade" and "Fifty-Seven Something", Coleman puts himself on the line in ways that open doors for all of us. That may be why, of all of the so-called "Radical Jewish" music, I find that Coleman's different works speak most profoundly, but also most difficult-ly; require the most work on my part to open, and perhaps, therefore, most deeply. But, unlike some allegedly avant garde music, when you do listen, there is something very tangible and special here.
Yiddishe Cup / Yiddfellas, 1999, YC 1002
And, once again, for something entirely different. Yiddishe Cup has been delighting audiences throughout the MidWest for many years. They play a "traditional" klezmer from periods ranging from the original brassy, jazzified American klez masters of the early part of the 20th century, to the delightful parodies of Mickey Katz in the Fifties. On their first outing, "Klezmerized", I liked them well enough, but was put off by some of the vocals. There is a fine line between parodizing a parody, and pulling it off with sufficient conviction that it becomes a parody of this time and place. In the intervening years, the band just got tighter as a band, and the vocals? They're also much improved--listen to "That's Morris" or a Barry Sisters-derived "Zug es mir nokhamol" (Tell me once more) and enjoy! You'll find youself back in a time when Mickey Katz was on the airwaves, secure in the pleasures of melting pot America. In fact, this latest offering is a big, fat, bouncing baby of bodacious music, played with verve and excitement and swing. This is relatively mainstream American klezmer, with tunes from Brandwine and Kandel and Tarras ... Katz--Mickey, that is. Some of the tunes are from recordings in the '50s, when musicians like Tarras and Danny Rubinstein were in their prime, but the American Jewish audience was largely moving on. The band does these melodies more than justice, they make them alive again, and us with them. And then the band follows up with tunes such as "Fun Tashlich," or "Tatar Dance" Klezmatics-style. At the same time, this same record includes a tsimbl/flute duet (Kandel's Hora) in a style going back hundreds of years, and then includes a version of "Rozhinkes mit mandlen" accompanied by theremin. A real metziya! Enjoy! I shoulda been spreading the word about this one for two years now. [GRADE: A]
Huljet / ... a kind of klezmer!!!, 1999, Heartmoon Records, LC 3447
Aside from the United States, there is probably no place on earth where more bad klezmer bands play than Germany. But as though the bad provide extraordinary fertilizer, there are also a number of excellent klezmer bands, as well. Huljet, for instance, based on the evidence of this recording, could play for any simcha anywhere, and be welcomed and cherished. The band is tight, much influenced by American klezmer, even tinged by American jazz, and very well-practiced. There is also a lovely sense of humor, as in the strains of "Sunrise, Sunset" that mingle in their "Goy's Nign." Traditional songs such as "Fun Tashlik" sometimes take klezmer themes into very interesting jazz territory. I think what makes this album most interesting is a sense that this is not wedding music, but rather, traditional klezmer, fused with jazz and folk, played for a club audience, by people who have learned the music well, but for whom it comes from another culture. The emotional intensity is different from a wedding band. Although the clarinet sometimes squeals, it doesn't really kvetch. There are other discontinuities. The modern Israeli song, "Shir ha-Shalom" (Song of peace) becomes "Shirade Shalom," as heard by someone who does not hear Hebrew. The revival favorite, "Ale Brider" becomes a shtick piece, rather, than one with sentiments the audience is expected to hear and consider. For all that, the music is well-played, and quite respectable. I'm not entirely comfortable with the album because it is, to a degree, deracinated klezmer, played extremely well, but by people who don't sound like they quite "get" it. At the same time, the music is extremely good, and perhaps the album should be judged only by musicianship (extraordinarily high), rather than also by Jewishness. [GRADE: A-]