Klezmer Fiddlers Revel In Freedom


It’s the sheer freedom that appeals to Jake Shulman-Ment.

“It’s like taking off a set of chains,” he says. “The freedom and the flexibility [are] so different.”

Shulman-Ment is one of the foremost violinists in the rising generation of new klezmer players, and the experience he’s describing — the sheer liberation of playing in duet with another fiddler — is one that he will share next week when he pairs up with Deborah Strauss for an evening of Jewish music at the Museum at Eldridge Street.

It’s a dream duo, putting him onstage with one of the founding members of the Klezmer Conservatory Band and one of the foremost teachers in contemporary klezmer.

It is also a dream duo for Shulman-Ment, who enthusiastically adds, “Deborah is such a freely expressive player, so that’s really fun.”

Perhaps best known for her 20-year-long partnership with Jeff Warschauer, the 49-year-old Strauss has been a pivotal figure in contemporary klezmer for over a quarter-century. That is almost as long as Shulman-Ment, 31, has been on the planet.

She is one of his biggest fans.

“He is one of the one of the most lovely, wonderful people you could imagine,” she says. “He’s strong and powerful when he plays and he brings an incredible depth of knowledge — particularly of Romanian fiddle traditions — to his music.”

In fact, Shulman-Ment was a student of hers at KlezKamp, as he happily recalls.

“I was around 15, 16,” he says. “Deborah was one of the first people who really encouraged me to check out older Jewish violin recordings in a serious way.”

At that point in his nascent career, Shulman-Ment had been in thrall to Alicia Svigals, his first teacher. Svigals, of course, is a brilliant klezmer violinist in her own right, but Strauss wanted the young fiddler to be aware of the myriad possibilities offered by his chosen instrument.

He explains, “Alicia’s style is very particular to her, and I had copied it and was listening [only] to her and the Klezmatics. Deborah recognized that I needed to broaden my sense of what klezmer violin is. She encouraged me to hear compilations of older klezmer recordings, and got me thinking about phrasing and the range of expression that Jewish violin music has.”

Eventually his growing interest would lead him to a Fulbright and an extended stay in Romania, where he would steep himself in the indigenous violin traditions of the Moldavian region.

Today, Shulman-Ment is one of the most sought-after klezmer fiddlers in the U.S., and can be heard and seen in a wide range of setting. But, as he has already said, it’s the free-flowing pleasure of the violin duo that really gets him excited.

“Something happens with me playing with one other string player; I feel that [sense of freedom] with that ‘lack’ of a heavy rhythmic accompaniment,” he explains.

Strauss is a particularly simpatico partner for the kind of explorations he has in mind.

“Something we both love to do is play with the tempo, pushing and pulling a phrase and not getting locked into a tempo,” he adds. “It’s much easier and more natural to do that in a duo.”

For Strauss, part of the attraction is being taken out of her own musical comfort zone. She says, “There is a repertoire that I know and there are tunes that are shared with other traditions, but Jake brings [music from] other sources. It’s not what I do, so each of us is bringing things to the performance.”

She adds, “There is a rich fiddle tradition of accompanying style that’s still not well known. There’s an art to it and very few people really dig that.”

The problem, says Shulman-Ment, is that “As violin players we don’t get to play with other violinists that much, which is a shame, especially in klezmer. There’s always a band or other stuff going on. But strings are meant to be played with other strings. There’s something in the resonance of the instrument; they ring better together.”

“An Evening of Klezmer Violin” with Deborah Strauss and Jake Shulman-Ment will take place at the Museum at Eldridge Street (12 Eldridge St.) on Thursday, May 7 at 7 p.m. For information go to www.eldridgestreet.org or call (212) 219-0888, ext. 205.