It’s a great time to be a Jewish music fan. Creative work is being done in a variety of styles and genres, ranging from neo-traditional klezmer to cutting-edge Jewish jams, from new liturgical sounds to old-time Yiddish folk and theater tunes. Sometimes all these different styles show up on one recording — or even in one song. To varying degrees and for better or worse, fusion seems to be the modus operandi of all but the most diehard traditionalists. At the very least, and as the following random survey of recent releases suggests, there’s something new — or old — to interest any and all tastes in a field that in no small way constitutes an entire “world music” all its own.
There is perhaps no better example of the prevailing impulse to combine different styles of music than Yale Strom’s “Klezmer: Café Jew Zoo.” One of the early klezmer revivalists, Strom has always taken a pancultural approach to his music, but never more so than he does here, with mostly original instrumental pieces and Yiddish songs variously reflecting Turkish, Brazilian, Latin jazz and Middle Eastern influences. The album also features a couple of Stoliner chasidic melodies on which Strom’s violin dances with Andy Statman’s clarinet, and the soulful Yiddish vocals of Elizabeth Schwartz on several tunes. Statman shows up playing mandolin on a Siberian-inspired waltz, and Mark Dresser introduces the sardonic “L’Chayim, Comrade Stalin!” with an appropriately dark, avant-garde double-bass solo. The album closer, “Ten Plagues,” is a funky, saxophone-drenched rhythm-and-blues tune that connects the dots between Jewish roots and Strom’s Detroit upbringing in the shadows of Motown. In sum, Strom has delivered another effort reflecting his restless eclecticism.
By virtue of the assembled talent alone — including guest musicians David Krakauer, Michael Alpert of Brave Old World, Frank London of the Klezmatics, and Zev Feldman, all of them tops in the field — Solomon & Socalled’s “HipHopKhasene” would have to be deemed an all-star effort. And on paper there’s no reason to doubt that Josh Dolgin, aka DJ Socalled, and violinist Sophie Solomon — an accomplished klezmer fiddler as heard here and on her work elsewhere with her English band Oi Va Voi — should be able to pull off the concept of a traditional Jewish wedding that combines hip-hop sampling, loops and beats with klezmer. The traditional set-pieces featuring Solomon’s fiddling and Feldman’s tsimbl playing resonate, and Krakauer’s distinctive clarinet lends soul and authenticity to the effort. But in the end, the elements don’t really gel — it’s not quite funky enough to appeal to mainstream pop or hip-hop fans, and it’s too highly caffeinated to appeal to any but the most adventurous or hyperactively-wired klezmer fans.
In a related yet far more successful vein, and featuring some of the same personnel, is David Krakauer’s “Live in Krakow.” With his band, Klezmer Madness, Krakauer has been pushing the klezmer envelope for several years, stirring influences from jazz, rock, funk and the avant-garde into arrangements of traditional tunes and original compositions. Krakauer gets away with it because his clarinet-playing is solidly rooted in the tradition of Dave Tarras and Naftule Brandwein, and because he is a virtuoso who instinctively understands the music. On this latest recording, Krakauer and band are joined by DJ Socalled, whose electronic samples and beats are never intrusive. Rather, they serve here as sonic palimpsests — evocative remnants of sounds that might have been heard over the course of the music’s history. They add a subtle, ghostly presence to a brilliant effort already haunted by loss and death. Krakauer’s fierce innovations and improvisations are in some sense a compellingly bittersweet response to the irony of a contemporary klezmer named Krakauer performing Jewish music in his namesake city, all but emptied of Jews for the past 60 years.
For more adventurous listeners, Koby Israelite’s “Dance of the Idiots” offers a satisfyingly psychedelic experience. The Israeli-born multi-instrumentalist, who now calls London home, writes vivid, tight set pieces built on simple but strongly-defined riffs and grooves. “Saints and Dates” is a peppy blend of old-time film music and Central European folk accordion invaded by klezmer clarinet. “Toledo Five Four,” built on a traditional Ladino folk melody, gets juiced by a Broadway show-band horn arrangement before taking a walk through an Arabian casbah. Israelite’s mock-cantorial vocals on “If That Makes Any Sense” first collide with and then sail over thrashing, speed-metal guitars that give way to state-of-the art electronic jungle beats. His dizzying juxtapositions earn Israelite the title of the Frank Zappa of contemporary Jewish music.
Although it features music by half a dozen different ensembles and is credited as a soundtrack to Pearl Gluck’s film by the same name, London’s “Divan” holds together remarkably well as a coherent album. That should come as no surprise to listeners familiar with London’s work, which includes membership in the Klezmatics as well as several ensembles represented here, including Hasidic New Wave, the Klezmer Brass Allstars, Kol Isha and Shekhina. London’s compositions here range from the trippy, mournful title track to the boisterous, brassy “Mi Yemale” to the dreamy, funky “A Bayt.” What ties it all together is London’s sympathetic touch and jazzy sensibility, always rooted in the niggun, the very DNA of Jewish music.
As the name of the group and the CD indicate, CeiliZemer’s “Shalom Ireland” is an attempt at joining klezmer and Irish music at the hip. Unfortunately, in this case the operation was a success, but the patient died. The impetus for the project came from a documentary film about Ireland’s Jewish community, and the musicians include members of the Sacramento-based Freilachmakers Klezmer String Band and the Oakland-based Driving with Fergus. The musicians use various strategies to combine the music — playing a klezmer tune with an Irish rhythm or sprinkling it with banjo or bouzouki, or playing an Irish air with the feel of a Romanian doina, or shepherd’s lament. Perhaps the fusion works better as background to the film.
More successful is the klezmer-bebop fusion attempted on the eponymous debut album of the Portland-based group Klezmocracy, in which the shtetl meets 52nd Street and the spirit of Brandwein jams with Charlie Parker and Art Tatum. It’s not surprising that klezmer and Latin jazz would sound as logical as they do paired on “Miami Beach Rhumba” — both musics share something called the clave rhythm. Lending their klezmer bona fides to the effort are saxophonist Lev Liberman, a co-founder of the original klezmer revival band, The Klezmorim, and clarinetist/vocalist Jack “Yankl” Falk, a member of Di Naye Kapelye. On numbers including “Tantst Yidelekh,” Klezmocracy recovers some of the manic, antic energy that powered The Klezmorim at their best and that has gone somewhat wanting ever since.
Even the Klezmer Conservatory Band has been tiptoeing into the fusion realm recently. Having long ago established itself as the world’s premier klezmer repertory ensemble specializing in mid-20th century Yiddish swing and theater songs, on its latest CD, “A Taste of Paradise,” the band extends its reach backward to include some Old World Hasidic melodies and forward to embrace Klezmatics-style klezmer-funk. The group hasn’t totally forsaken the big-band sound for which it became best known; it has merely refined it and applied it more sparingly to immigrant-era band numbers, Russian waltzes and Greek dances. The recording also includes a delicious and deliriously schmaltzy arrangement of “Sabbath Prayer” from “Fiddler on the Roof.”
Several new releases feature top contemporary Yiddish vocalists, none better than Eleanor Reissa, who on “Songs in the Key of Yiddish” sings with the fluency of the native speaker she is and with the infectious, dramatic personality one would expect from a Tony Award-nominated singer-actress. Reissa’s program includes theater favorites like “Sheyn vi di L’vone” — given a smoky-jazz, Peggy Lee-like arrangement — and folk songs like “Di Mizinke Oysgegebn,” with contemporary, cabaret-style accompaniment featuring impeccable playing that never detracts from the vocalist, a master of the art of selling a song.
You couldn’t ask for a better tribute to folk composer Mikhl Gelbart than “Vessel of Song: The Music of Mikhl Gelbart” by the Lori Cahan-Simon Ensemble. A veritable supergroup of Yiddish instrumental and vocal talent, the musicians — including Adrianne Greenbaum (flute), Alexander Fedoriouk (cimbalom), Walt Mahovlich (accordion) and Steven Greenman (violin) — tackle 15 of the 20th-century composer’s works, including holiday numbers, art songs and children’s tunes, including some Chanukah melodies familiar to all. A few tunes feature lyrics by the likes of I.L. Peretz and Avrom Reisin, and others were written by Gelbart himself. All of them have the sound of timeless folk songs, and Cahan-Simon’s extensive notes and lyrics included in the 24-page booklet accompanying the CD make it a veritable semester’s course in Yiddish Folksong 101.
As graduates of the Juilliard School, it’s not surprising that the members of the David Glukh Klezmer Ensemble would boast the refined touch displayed on “Live! From New York.” With its violin, piccolo trumpet and accordion instrumentation, the acoustic trio favors an Old World approach, and Glukh’s piccolo trumpet is well-suited to playing cantorial-style melodies like “Sherele” and “Oi, Tate.”
Forty years ago surf-guitar pioneer Dick Dale scored big with surf-rock versions of “Miserlou” and “Hava Nagilah.” The combination of twangy guitars and Middle Eastern melodies hasn’t grown old in the meantime, and on “Meshugga Beach Party,” Mel Waldorf applies the surprisingly catchy formula to “Sixteen Songs of the Chosen Surfers,” including “Dayenu,” “Hatikvah” and (gasp!) “Kol Nidre.” Call it a nova novelty, best in small doses.
Seth Rogovoy is a music critic and the author of “The Essential Klezmer: A Music Lover’s Guide to Jewish Roots and Soul Music” (Algonquin).
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A Roundup of Recent Releases
Klezmer: Café Jew Zoo
Yale Strom, Naxos World, compact disc.
Solomon & Socalled, Piranha, compact disc.
Live in Krakow
David Krakauer, Label Bleu, compact disc.
Dance of the Idiots
Koby Israelite, Tzadik, compact disc.
Frank London, Palinka Pictures, compact disc.
CeiliZemer, Self-released, compact disc.
Klezmocracy, Entrance, compact disc.
A Taste of Paradise
Klezmer Conservatory Band, Rounder, compact disc.
Songs in the Key of Yiddish
Eleanor Reissa, Self-released, compact disc.
Vessel of Song: The Music of Mikhl Gelbart
Lori Cahan-Simon Ensemble, Self-released, compact disc.
Live! From New York
David Glukh Klezmer Ensemble, Self-released, compact disc.
Meshugga Beach Party: Sixteen Songs of the Chosen Surfers
Mel Waldorf, Halakahiki, compact disc.