If there was one musical moment that has stood out so far that encapsulates Kulturfest — the international festival of Yiddish music being played out in venues around Manhattan — it may have been when Polina Shepherd ‘ from Tatarstan by way of the UK — launched into a version of “Avinu Malkeynu.” The audience took the opportunity of a familiar melody to attempt a sing-along. That lasted about two phrases and then died out. Shepherd’s performance, like all the best ones we’ve heard this week, was not about kitsch, sentimentality, or nostalgia. This wasn’t singing around the campfire. Delivering the prayer inimitably, with ornamentation reflecting her immersion in the chant of the muezzin as much as in the cantorial tradition, it was about transcendence via art. It was a cry from her own heart, an act of creation, and a transformation of time and space into pure beauty that in sum equaled the mystical moment.
There were quite a few of those moments scattered throughout the concert by Polina and Merlin Shepherd at Joe’s Pub on Thursday night, all adding up to the spiritual experience that musicians from time out of mind have been pursuing — at least as far back as the Temple choirs. That this couple — he’s one of the world’s greatest Yiddish clarinetists, she’s a stunning vocalist with a four octave range and no slouch on piano, either — is deeply in love only adds to their ability to conjure up a musical dance that is much more complex than mere harmony, but also about tension and release, joy and sorrow, agony and ecstasy.
Merlin Shepherd is more than just a mere interpreter of the klezmer clarinet tradition. His opening statement, a “taxim,” or solo lament, boasted an impossibly full, rich tone such that it hardly even sounded like a clarinet, all deep and breathy, full of vibrating air, a cry of anguish (he had the killings in Charleston, S.C., on his mind) based in an ancient folk music but rendered in an utterly contemporary manner resonant of classical and jazz. The duo’s program consisted largely of continuous suites of music, trading lead voices, alternately meditative and jaunty, so that some in the audience sat enraptured while others literally stood up and danced.
I like to think of the duo as the Robert Plant and Jimmy Page of klezmer, with Polina Shepherd channeling the sound of Kashmir (the place and the song) through her evocative vocals like Plant and Merlin standing with one foot in tradition, like Page and the blues, and another foot in the avant-garde, like Page as Page, reinventing the sound and possibilities of what the instrument can do. Polina and Merlin Shepherd – the Led Zeppelin of contemporary Yiddish music.
On Wednesday night at NYU’s Skirball Performing Arts Center, trumpeter Frank London led his Glass House Orchestra in a diverse and radical program of self-described “Astro-Hungarian folk punk,” which indeed owed as much to jazz eccentric Sun Ra as to the rich multicultural music of Hungary. The eight-member ensemble, a polyglot assemblage of idiosyncratic virtuosi including Aram Bajakian, the lead guitarist for the late Lou Reed’s band; Pablo Aslan, a giant of Argentinian jazz; Yonadav Halevy, one of Israel’s best known jazz drummers; Jake Shulman-Ment, a Brooklynite ethnomusicologist and world-class klezmer fiddler, and three standout Hungarian artists on cimbalom, bass, violin, and vocals, was equally adept at evoking the sound of Gypsy-influenced Jewish music and then turning around on a dime and playing a spaced-out, prog-jazz operetta. Only from the visionary mind of musical alchemist Frank London could such a dazzling, provocative sound emanate, and we are all the better for it.
Seth Rogovoy is a frequent contributor to the Forward’s culture pages.