Mixing Mountain Musics

How One Band Combines Klezmer and Bluegrass

By Jon Kalish

Published November 14, 2003, issue of November 14, 2003.
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Somewhere in New York, perhaps at this very moment, someone is hosting a “picking party,” a bluegrass gathering in a private home where musicians sit and play tunes. And Margot Leverett, a 45-year-old clarinetist, is not invited.

“They’re being very careful not to let me know where they are,” Leverett said in an interview with the Forward.

When she manages to find them — at weekly bluegrass jams in Manhattan bars — people get up and leave at the sight of her clarinet. Bluegrass is traditionally played with string instruments, including banjo, mandolin, fiddle and bass. Woodwind instruments, such as the clarinet, are practically unheard of in the genre.

Nevertheless, the bluegrass community is getting to know Leverett and her new band, the Klezmer Mountain Boys. The quintet has just released “Margot Leverett and the Klezmer Mountain Boys” and has secured a slew of gigs in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut in the coming months.

The Klezmer Mountain Boys began two years ago, when Leverett, who had already made a name for herself as a first-rate klezmer clarinetist, called the great bluegrass fiddler Kenny Kosek and asked if he would become one of her Klezmer Mountain Boys. Kosek, who is certainly the finest bluegrass fiddler east of the Hudson, has played on Broadway, as well as with Vassar Clemens, James Taylor and Jerry Garcia. He agreed to give it a try.

Leverett, the original clarinet player for the Klezmatics and a veteran of the klezmer scene, found herself drawn to bluegrass because of her desire to play klezmer with an all-string ensemble, which is how very early klezmer was performed. That lack of brass instruments and accordion is evident in the sound of Leverett’s group when it performs live, but on the band’s debut recording the ensemble is augmented by Frank London’s Klezmer Brass Allstars, the venerable Zalman Mlotek on piano and Michael Alpert on accordion.

Like Kosek, the other members of the band are Jewish bluegrass standouts. Mandolin player Barry Mitterhoff fronts his own group, Silk City. His boyhood friend, Joe Selly, plays guitar. The bass player is Marty Confurius, who played with Andy Statman when Statman first discovered klezmer in the 1970s.

Bluegrass is the up-tempo mostly acoustic music that originated in the Appalachian Mountains in 1945 and was named after the Bluegrass Boys, the band that accompanied the great mandolinist Bill Monroe. It almost always features a driving banjo line — something missing from the Klezmer Mountain Boys — and melds country western, gospel and blues music with the musical heritage of its originators: English, Irish and Scottish music. Leverett likes to point out that klezmer is also mountain music, but its mountains are in Eastern Europe.

According to Al Steiner, a Washington, D.C.-based bluegrass writer and former bluegrass radio host, the phenomenon of bluegrass bands playing other musical genres dates back to the late 1950s and early 1960s when “progressive” bluegrass bands started to cover pop and rock tunes. Years ago Jim and Jesse and the Virginia Boys did an entire album of Chuck Berry songs for the Epic label. Among the recent bluegrass instrumental tributes to rock artists was one called “Pickin’ on Santana.” There’s an AC/DC bluegrass cover band called Hayseed Dixie.

“Don’t get me started on what the Czech bluegrass bands do,” Steiner warned. “The Klezmer Mountain Boys taking on bluegrass seems quite reasonable.”

Indeed, the notion of combining klezmer with bluegrass is not as far-fetched as it sounds, and Leverett’s band is not the only group that performs the two musics. Statman, the clarinet and mandolin virtuoso from Brooklyn, has actually been playing bluegrass longer than he has been playing klezmer. But Statman, who declined an invitation from Leverett to perform on the new recording, has never used his clarinet to play bluegrass. About 10 years ago, Statman recorded “A Shabbos in Nashville,” an album consisting of bluegrass arrangements of Shabbat songs featuring an Orthodox Jewish singer from Milwaukee named Jerry Wisentowski. The record was never released, but Statman said he hopes to see a CD put out at some point in the future. And the Freilachmaker Klezmer String Band in the Sacramento-Davis area of Northern California has been playing klezmer, bluegrass and old-timey music since 1995.

Asked to assess Leverett and her band, banjo player Andy Rubin of the Freilachmaker Klezmer String Band said: “Their ensemble ability is just spectacular. That level of musicianship raises the bar for everybody.”

Leverett likes to stress that her band isn’t doing bluegrass versions of klezmer tunes or klezmer versions of bluegrass tunes. What it does do is pull off a seamless segue from one genre to another, say in the course of a four tune medley. The band will play Bill Monroe’s “Lonesome Moonlight Waltz,” in which Leverett, Kosek and Mitterhoff take solos, and in the course of three guitar notes the group shifts to a Russian Jewish waltz. This happens in a momentary pause in Leverett’s clarinet lead and it takes listeners several seconds to realize the subtle shift in melody amounts to genre-hopping. Listening closely to Leverett playing bluegrass leads on her clarinet and you will acknowledge that it is indeed still bluegrass, but the rarity of the woodwind sound in bluegrass makes it almost sound like a whole new genre.

“They just go together really well,” Leverett said. “Both of these musics have really deep soul. They’re fun, wonderful, joyous dance music, which is what I was attracted to at first.”

At a recent gig at the Cornelia Street Cafe in Greenwich Village, Leverett posed her listeners with a challenge. “We’re going to play a little bit of klezmer and a little bit of bluegrass,” she told a packed audience. “You see if you can tell which is which.”

“As far as I can tell the audience we’ve been attracting is kind of half-and-half,” said Kosek. “People who are into klezmer music are curious about this and will come out because they know of Margot as a klezmer clarinetist. And there are some bluegrass people who come out too. It’s nice because these tend to be fairly insular worlds.”

Jon Kalish is a New York-based newspaper and radio journalist.

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