THE KLEZMORIM > Krono > 1977 >
 Inside Story 

AS THE NEW YEAR began, The Klezmorim returned to 1750 Arch Street Studios where Laurie Chastain recorded energetic renditions of Russian/Yiddish and Hungarian Gypsy songs. One more session and we'd have an album, maybe.

We were, to be honest, unseasoned dance-party players, barely ready for the burden of posterity. In performance, we could get by on energy and good intentions; in the studio, we knew that every clam would stink aloud forever. Yet we dared the devil by trying to make the tunes our own... wrangling, between takes, over musical arrangements. Each part had to mesh, since we were recording the whole group live, in real time, rather than on isolated channels. Chris Strachwitz impatiently pushed us to play quick and dirty; he wanted spirit, not precision. It was perhaps the first time he had recorded aspiring folklorists rather than authentic indigenous musicians.

Pressures mounted as day jobs conflicted with art. Skuse and I desired longer rehearsals and firmer commitments from the other players, but we couldn't guarantee better pay or steady work. Laurie left the group -- granting us the use of her violin tracks but not her vocals. In March, the remaining four Klezmorim pulled off the hat trick of recording two-thirds of an album in a single session. Bob Shumaker patiently guided us through the mixdown, and East Side Wedding -- opening salvo of the klezmer revival -- was finally in the can.

While the album was still in test pressings, Henry Sapoznik showed up, visiting from Brooklyn. He and I bonded immediately; he was one of three persons on Earth (the others being David Skuse and Martin Schwartz) with whom I could have an intelligent discussion about klezmer music. Henry praised what we were doing, and offered useful criticism too. We continued corresponding after he returned to New York: he sent me tapes of 78-rpm discs from the collection of Richard Spottswood, and I encouraged his dreams of starting his own Yiddish band.

I had always felt constrained by the flute's refined tone; even when roughened with growls or hums or folk-flute simulations, it failed to express the bluesy wail and rhythmic drive that animated me. After East Side Wedding was released and David Julian Gray shifted from rhythm strings to clarinet, the band needed more punch in the low range. So I dropped flute to wrangle alto sax.

Precedents for klezmer saxophone were sparse. Initially, my style was a pastiche of 1920s dance music, Serbian "Golden Horns" brass, Brecht/Weill cabaret, norteño sax, the Rudy Tepel Orchestra, and the sax stylings of Cheap Suit Serenaders sessionman Paul Woltz and Macedonian tenor wizard Ferus Mustafov. (For authenticity, I stashed my reeds in a Balkan Sobranie cigarette tin.) Over time I adapted straight-ahead old-time klezmer influences, as in "What would Naftuli Brandwine have sounded like on sax?" We now know that Brandwine did play sax, although so far no recordings have turned up.

Copping klezmer ornaments and techniques from other instruments made sense; the klezmer style itself seemed to have pre-dated the instruments, which were of course mere "vessels of song" -- one simply needed to tune one's ears to a kind of Platonic, medieval ur-klezmer. With documentary evidence scanty, we synthesized what we knew about acoustic physics, dance music, and Eastern European folk arts to arrive at a plausible reconstruction of the klezmer sound. 78-rpm discs' three-minute studio track limit left unanswered many you-had-to-be-there questions about song cycles, dance medleys, segues, tune variants, tempi, solos, sets, and sound balance in the open air. Until subsequent research confirmed our guesswork, we felt like Columbus's sailors: half-afraid of falling off the world's edge.

East Side Wedding turned out to be one of those hills you climb only to see steeper hills beyond. If gigs came a little more easily to a band with an album available at Tower Records, income was still negligible... and players found other fish to fry. Greg Carageorge opted to devote full time to his other band, Troika Balalaikas. David Skuse chose to pursue higher education in ethnomusicology, first at SUNY, then at Columbia University. Two years after the birth of The Klezmorim, only two original members remained: me and D.J. Gray.

But the band's unusual repertoire and pioneering zeal attracted interesting new players: Rick Elmore, bass brassist for the Cheap Suit Serenaders... Nada Lewis, queen of the Bay Area Balkan music scene... multi-instrumentalist/arranger/ethnomusicologist Stuart Brotman... and street-wise pop jokester Brian Wishnefsky.