Klezmer: New Noise From Ancient Sounds

Klezmer music...The name may leave you totally puzzled, but you've probably heard the sound before. Without my revealing the slightest in terms of its Yiddish (that is, Eastern European Jewish) origins, a friend of mine referred to it as "wild Jewish music" the very first time he heard it. Can we attribute this to the fact that several American generations have heard Herschel Bernardi singing 'If I Were A Rich Man' in Fiddler On The Roof? Perhaps, but to use showtunes as any sort of adequate musical comparison would be extremely unjust. Klezmer feels and sounds like a great many things. It may range from somber and contemplative to frantic, and ethnic colors abound. The Balkans quickly come to mind: Eastern European nations such as Greece, Turkey, the former Romania, and many others. The textures of more exotic locales, such as the Middle and Far East appear as well. Today, head-on collisions with rock, jazz, and other current music continue to add to this thick musical soup. Despite these permutations (or just plain mutations perhaps), klezmer still seems to be perceived by many as a culture-specific musical genre, left to be played and appreciated by those whose ancestors brought it to this country and into our modern age. The question is: Not being a Jew, is this music something I just can't "understand" properly? I can understand that it's beautiful and that it moves me. This sentiment has been echoed by musicians and listeners from all walks of life who come with a sincere desire to enjoy klezmer and to understand where it's coming from and where it's going.
Klezmer traces it's roots back centuries to Eastern Europe. In saying it is Jewish music as above, it is important to acknowledge the Jewish culture's secular as well as religious component. Klezmer music was most decidedly a part of the former; instrumental music was forbidden in the temple, only unaccompanied singing was allowed. The instrumentation of these first klezmer bands is the basis for the typical klezmer band of today. The most popular instruments included violin, clarinet, accordion, and drums; brass, other reeds, and a double bass or tuba might make appearances as well. These groups were most popular at weddings and other celebrations in the community. Many also took the opportunity to travel extensively, playing for all manner of audiences who might need something they could dance to all night.
At the end of the 19th century, European Jews were among the most populous of the groups immigrating into America. Sadly, klezmer music was regarded by some as a barrier for entrance into mainstream culture, and many Jews were content to abandon what might have been a reminder of the old life they had left. Klezmer, referred to simply as "Yiddish music" at this time, was still embraced by Jews in the more culturally segregated areas of large cities and there it managed to flourish. It even occasionally received mainstream recognition on radio shows or novelty performances by popular musicians of the day. Yet as the 20th century continued, more and more American Jews were growing distant from their European heritage. The annihilation of much of the remaining Jewish culture in Europe by the Nazis and the subsequent creation of Israel as a new focal point of Judaism also distanced American Jews from their Yiddish roots. Yet as pop music rose from the ashes of the big-band era, one Yiddish entertainer seized the limelight by doing something entirely new. Mickey Katz, humorist and bandleader, used old klezmer styles to parody the popular music of the day. He mixed English and Yiddish lyrics with tight musicianship and thrilled audiences of the 1950s. However, the emphasis of Katz's most popular music was on lyrical humor and parody and it only touched on the boundaries of traditional klezmer. A formidable musician, Katz also made a number of more straight-ahead klezmer recordings, though these received considerably less recognition. The more serious instrumentalists, musicians such as legendary clarinetist David Tarras (known as the "The King of Klezmer") played on, but the genre was reasonably uneventful for the next two or three decades following World War II.
Whether you choose to call it a renaissance, revolution, or revival, the 1980s were something different. Young Jewish musicians were coming from jazz, classical, and other backgrounds with an interest in rediscovering the music that seemed so inherently tied to their roots. New klezmer bands began appearing across the nation and with these new players came a wealth of new skills and modes of expression, learned everywhere from classical conservatories to late night jazz jam sessions. To discuss the chronology or details of all the bands and musicians that have led and continue to lead this movement would be a huge task, as dedicated klezmer units have sprung up like punk rockers in the wake of Nirvana; so bear in mind that the following names are only a small sampling of modern klezmer. There are many more equally deserving names and faces out there than could possibly be discussed here; the music mentioned below is only some of that which has, in my personal search, moved me especially.
Perhaps the most exciting and fascinating feature of this new wave of klezmer is hearing the traditional melodies and song forms twisted and reinterpreted by players with musical vocabularies that extend into myriad and often distant realms. Clarinet and mandolin virtuoso Andy Statman, protege of the great David Tarras, might at first convince a listener that tradition is truly alive and well as he faithfully recreates old standards with his quartet. However, a deeper listen will reveal Statman's admirable facility in a variety of forms: his extended, John Coltrane-inspired clarinet improvisations as well as his blistering mandolin chops, ready to shred the most frantic of bluegrass with the best of them (which he occasionally manages to do, even quoting 'The Orange Blossom Special' in concert with Itzhak Perlman. But more on that later).
The Klezmatics, easily the biggest name in the current klezmer scene, have been known to carry the tag of "the world's greatest part band." Albums with intriguing titles like Rhythm & Jews andJews With Horns show that the nickname is well deserved, these recorded performances leave me baffled by how wickedly good this band must be at an actual party. The Klezmatics also played a role in classical violinist Itzhak Perlman's recent immersion into klezmer music. Along with Andy Statman as well as the Klezmer Conservatory Band and Brave Old World, they went into the studio to record In The Fiddlers House, where Perlman sat in with each band, playing traditional tunes as well as frightfully adventurous original music. This project went on to appear on 'The Late Show with David Letterman' as well as a critically acclaimed performance at Radio City Music Hall. This concert was immortalized on record as Live In The Fiddlers House-. Both of these recordings offer a spectacular sampler of four of Americas finest klezmer bands at their best.
It is not too surprising that the music of Mickey Katz made a return appearance in this new climate. The host this time around was Don Byron, an African-American and non-Jewish clarinetist most well known for his current involvement in New Yorks "alternative" jazz scene. Byron played lead clarinet with the Klezmer Conservatory Band during his time at the New England Conservatory, so the medium a familiar one to him. His band of klezmer and jazz musicians went through both Katz's lesser known instrumental music as well as his delightfully comic vocal oriented material, with Byron's considerable reverence for Katz keeping everyone in line with the spirit of the music. Don Byron Plays The Music of Mickey Katz has perhaps unfairly typecast the gleefully genre-jumping Byron, but it remains a wonderful album whose material has not lost a bit of its charm since its inception.

"Young Jewish musicians were coming from jazz, classical, and other backgrounds with an interest in rediscovering the music that seemed so inherently tied to their roots."

Bands like all of those mentioned above are somewhere at the crossroads where klezmer meets well known musical forms such as jazz, rock, bluegrass, and so on. One facet of this music that has particularly caught my attention is the juxtaposition of traditional klezmer with not so traditional, even experimental, jazz, where it seems that nearly all roads lead to composer and saxophonist John Zorn. A tirelessly prolific performer, composer, and record company head, Zorn is known most prominently to skirt along the fringes of jazz and 20th century classical music. In recent years he has taken a profound interest in his Jewish heritage and it has consequently become a integral part of his musical agenda. His own ensemble, Masada, combines the instrumentation and furious disposition of Ornette Coleman's classic quartet with what sound like traditional Jewish melodies, though the bands repertoire (literally hundreds of tunes) is almost entirely Zorn originals. The free-jazz presentation transcends expectations of klezmer in a major way, but the results are nothing short of spectacular. Zorn's other major contribution has been the creation of a "Radical Jewish Culture" series on his record label, Tzadik. His numerous releases attempt to capture the Jewish experience in ways too numerous to mention, from experimental opera to hardcore punk covers of Yiddish classics. Klezmer Madness by the David Krakauer Trio stays a little closer to its musical roots, at least in form, while still putting an odd double meaning to its title: "You may be mad about klezmer, but step back for a second. This is klezmer gone mad." Krakauer, formerly clarinetist for the Klezmatics, plays the fire out of traditional Yiddish tunes, most from the songbooks of David Tarras and his contemporaries. With his sparse accompaniment of accordion and drums, Krakauer's intense improvisations which occasionally leap totally into the avant-garde give these time tested songs a most intense workout.
There is, of course, much more fine music out there than I could possibly begin to name. Musicians all across North America and Europe, both recorded and not, are playing thrilling and vibrant klezmer music. Those who choose to seek it out are taking part in an exciting musical adventure. The notion of traditional music evolving and changing may be a peculiar one, but it is happening, and it is going on around us as we listen.

Though Tom really digs klezmer, he sadly wouldn't know a matzoh ball if he were being vigorously pelted with them. He welcomes your comments, love letters, and hate mail at