Horn of Plenty

What’s With All the Great Jewish Trumpeters?

By Alexander Gelfand

Published April 02, 2008, issue of April 11, 2008.
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It’s rarely wise to single out a particular group of instrumentalists — saxophonists, pianists, laptop artists — as an engine of change in a given genre. Doing so usually just means you’ll end up ignoring the vast numbers of other people doing equally interesting work.

Still, some things are hard to ignore. So if I may be permitted a brief moment of brass-centrism: What’s with all the great Jewish trumpet music all of a sudden?

Trumpeters haven’t exactly been invisible in Jewish music; Ziggy Elman, the progenitor of swing-era freylakh jazz, probably did more than anyone to bring the sound of klezmer to a general audience. But trumpeters have tended not to get the same props as clarinet and fiddle players. Clarinetists like Naftule Brandwein and Dave Tarras, who helped define American klezmer in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, remain touchstones for contemporary klezmer musicians of all stripes; but you’d be hard pressed to find a trumpet player who portrays a similar role.

When it comes to pushing boundaries, however, trumpeters more than hold their own.

Frank London, whom many consider to be the godfather of the progressive klezmer movement, has been turning out innovative music since the 1980s. His most recent project, a rearrangement of his own musical setting of I.L. Peretz’s “A Night in the Old Marketplace,” is also one of his most ambitious: It’s essentially a bid to resurrect Jewish musical theater as a surreal multimedia event.

Susan Watts, the latest iteration of the Hoffman-Watts klezmer dynasty from Philadelphia, has been elaborating her own unique blend of klezmer and downtown improvisation for well over a decade. (She and her mother, drummer Elaine Hoffman Watts, recently recorded an as-yet-unreleased album together.)

Avishai Cohen, a stalwart of the New York post-bop scene, has been brewing a groovy, dance-oriented stew of Israeli pop, Middle Eastern rhythm and jazz harmony with the Israeli-émigré band Third World Love. The group’s latest release, “New Blues,” was released last month.

And then there’s the spate of trumpet-driven discs that have come out of John Zorn’s Tzadik label over the past year or two.

The first, “The Growl,” inclines toward Ashkenazic, Sephardic and modern jazz music all at once. Though masterminded by the fine pianist and composer Alon Nechushtan, “The Growl” gets most of its juice from trumpeter Matt Shulman, a musician known primarily for his Chet Baker-inspired singing, his avant-garde trumpet playing and his invention of the “Shulman System,” a chest-mounted rig designed to take the pain out of holding a trumpet at lip height for hours on end. On “The Growl,” Shulman reveals a hitherto unsuspected affinity for Jewish music and a startling ability to combine this music with free jazz, improvisation and multiphonic trumpet playing, which makes it seem as if he is singing — and sometimes screaming — through his instrument while he is playing it.

Taken alone, “The Growl” would have been remarkable enough. But it was not alone. Rather, it was followed by two equally striking efforts: David Buchbinder’s “Odessa/Havana” and Steven Bernstein’s “Diaspora Suite.” Anthony Weiss has already written about “Diaspora Suite” in these pages. Suffice it to say that with this, the fourth installment in his “Diaspora” series, Bernstein is well on his way to establishing one of the most original bodies of Jewish music on record.

Which leaves us with Buchbinder, a Canadian best known for his klez-funk work with the Flying Bulgar Klezmer Band. Turns out he has long had a taste for Cuban music, as well. And thanks to Hilario Durán, a Cuban émigré who is now a mainstay of Toronto’s Latin jazz community, Buchbinder has been able to indulge that interest in unusual ways.

Buchbinder and Duran began their collaboration by trading recordings of traditional Jewish and Cuban music. They then crafted a series of compositions that sketch an imaginary collision between Eastern Europe and Latin America, with individual tunes lurching from bulgar to bomba.

Other musicians, including drummer Roberto Rodriguez and guitarist Benjamin Lapidus, have explored similar territory. Indeed, Lapidus’s “Herencia Judia,” which also came out in March, is the latest in a series of finely judged Judeo-Latin releases. But few have done it with such exuberance. Within his own groups, Durán’s bravura style can grow tiresome. Here, though, his tendency toward mania gooses Buchbinder’s vision to a level it wouldn’t likely have found otherwise.

Credit Durán for that, but credit the trumpeter for having come up with the idea in the first place.

Alexander Gelfand is a writer living in New York City.






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