Where Klezmer Is Today


With the year drawing to a close, it’s a good time to step back and consider the state of klezmer. With the city soon to be overflowing with a range of Ashkenazi music, theater, film and literature via the riches of the “Yiddish New York” festival, I’ll draw your attention to a few other avatars of the music and its attendant culture.

I had three examples of contemporary klezmer in mind (in addition to the “YNY” programs running Dec. 24-29). The first is an event, the other two new recordings, but each in its way encapsulates where the music stands now that the klezmer revival is some 40 years old.

Walter Zev Feldman was there at the beginning, alongside Andy Statman in the mid-1970s, both of them studying with Dave Tarras and then in 1979 releasing a seminal duet album, “Jewish Klezmer Music.” Feldman, like so many key figures in the renaissance of the music, has always juggled a career as an ethnomusicologist and pedagogue with the work of a gigging musician. Occasionally, he gets to combine the two, as he did this week for “Klezmer: Music, History and Memory,” a program with the estimable Deborah Strauss on violin and Feldman himself on cymbal; the evening was a unique illustration of the many strands of Central European music that came together to create what we think of as klezmer music. Feldman recently published a book of the same title, which is must reading for anyone interested in the origins of this music.

Of course in the years since the Feldman-Statman album was released, the klezmer revival has incorporated everything from free jazz (Burton Greene and Perry Robinson, Greg Wall), Cajun and R&B (the New Orleans Klezmer All-Stars), and every imaginable school of rock. We have had traditionalist groups trying to reimagine the Old World musical traditions (among them Feldman’s own band, Khevrisa), and a lot of swing-oriented players channeling Tarras.

For a picture of where this music is going, there could hardly be a more telling contrast than the one offered by “Apikorsim/Heretics,” by the Klezmatics (World Village/Harmonia Mundi) and “What’s Nu?” — the first CD by the Nu Haven Kapelye (Reckless DC Music). The ‘Matics have been in business for 30 years now, and the band’s personnel has been set for at least a decade; Nu Haven began life as a wildly variegated pick-up band that would gather under the wings of David Chevan in the Elm City on Dec. 25 and, after 16 years of that annual gig, finally formalized its existence with a debut album.

The difference in provenance can be intuited from a first-listening to the two sets, and it bespeaks two contrasting approaches to the music that are at least as old as the revival, if not a century or so older.

Nu Haven Kapleye is a loose assembly numbering some 35 participants. That is a very, very big band, about twice the size of your average jazz big band, with a lot of fathers and mothers and sons and daughters and a rhythm section that frequently includes three drummers and a female vocal duo, the Seltzer Sisters, who evoke the spirit of the Barry Sisters. This was never meant to be a working band or a recording band — it’s more like a representative of the breadth of the New Haven Jewish community, set to boisterous, roistering music.

The album features mostly standards (although a klezmogrified version of Balkan Beat Box’s “Gross” is a highlight), loosey-goosey arrangements and a certain dancing-mastodon-like charm. You could hardly call it sprightly but it is definitely lively, and the fun is infectious. It reminds me of a more disciplined version of a Gary Lucas version of “Adon Olam” that sounded more like drunken frat boys on a Saturday morning than chazzanim. Steering a musical group this big, with musicians at wildly different stages of development, is like turning a supertanker in mid-ocean. It’s not graceful, but there is a sweeping power, sort of a Yiddish Stan Kenton feel.

The Klezmatics, by contrast, are a Jaguar F-Type; sleek, muscular, breathtakingly responsive to a great driver and very, very fast. The band is capable of a dazzling range of tempi and emotional states (the group has recorded Holly Near tunes as well as previously unrecorded Woody Guthrie songs), as the new album reminds listeners. “Apikorsim” is a bit of a throwback to “Rise Up!”, its 2003 set that combined originals and wonderful excavations.

Essentially, this is a live recording, with the band members responsible for every sound you hear and, like the Nu Haven Kapelye set, the energy of the recording spills over at times, albeit with startling precision. As the title tune proclaims, “Happy heretics sing with a roar!” 

George Robinson’s column appears every other month.