Klezmer is a traveling music, an intricate weaving of dance rhythm and lament, a sharing of joy and sorrow through voice, violin, clarinet, cimbalom, keyboard, horns, and percussion that has moved through medieval times in the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe to travel the world and, on the shores of America, meet up and be in conversation with jazz, bluegrass, and the blues. As the beginning of Chanukah, the festival of lights, approaches on 20 December, it’s a good time to take a listen to the work of musicians who are carrying forward this lively and living tradition.
Twenty five years ago, a mixed bag of artists responded to an advertisement in a New York paper seeking people who’d be interested in forming a klezmer band. Through twenty five years, The Klezmatics have done just that, holding on to tradition by extending it, creating a sound that carries the eastern European sounds of the music into deep connection with other ideas while staying true to source and sound.
To celebrate the band’s twenty fifth anniversary, The Klezmatics have released a two disc set of a concert they gave at Carnegie Hall in New York City. Two of the bands’ founding members are still in the group, Lorin Sklamberg on lead vocal, accordion, guitar, and piano, and Frank London, who plays trumpet, horns, percussion, keyboard, and also sings. Long time band members Lisa Gutkin on violin, Paul Morrissett on bass and tsimbl, and Mark Darriau on clarinets, saxophones, and kaval add their voices and their instruments to the concerts, as do a roster of nearly two dozen guests including former band members and friends who have worked in projects with the band. The repertoire shows the range of Klezmatics’ skills and interests, and the energy from their connection with the audience on the the night is present, too. The first disc of Live at Town Hall, with a mix of music from tradition and recent day, features the rhythms of the music, while the second disc leans toward vocal music and collaborations the band has made with other artists, including songs by Woody Guthrie that he left unfinished and band members were invited by the Guthrie family to complete,. There is original music composed by members of the band as well. If you choose to listen to only one album of klezmer music this season, Live at Town Hall should be that album.
There is a lot more to explore, though. That is what pianist and composer Roger Davidson found. Though he has worked in western classical forms, as well as in jazz, tango, and Brazilian music, he decided to go deeper into klezmer music for his album On the Road of Life.. “The spirit of this music has been with me all my life,” Davidson says. “I only recently started to write music for small klezmer ensemble and it was a very natural way to express myself.” The twelve original pieces on the album, with titles such as Freedom. Dance, Equal in the Eyes of God, and Dance of Hope, offer melodic and refreshing explorations of the dance music roots of klezmer as done by a small group. To bring his vision for this music to recording, Davidson turned to Frank London of the Klezmatics to produce and arrange the material, and to play trumpet. Joshua Horowitz plays cimbalom and accordion, Pablo Aslan handles the bass, and Richie Barshay plays drums, while Andy Statman plays clarinet and mandolin. The work of this small ensemble, led by Davidson;s piano, makes a nice compliment to the larger group sound of the Klezmatics’ album.
Andy Statman was one of those active in the revival of klezmer music in the 1970s, but his interest in American roots music has always been wide ranging. As a teenager he got into playing jazz, and learned everything he could about bluegrass, as well. His versatility of interest and instrument has taken his career through many musical roads, a path he joyfully explores with music, much of it original, on Old Brooklyn. It’s not klezmer, but if the music described above interests you, you’ll want to follow Statman on this exploration too. The ideas of evoking city energy with bluegrass and the history of the melting pot that is Brooklyn with jazz just give a hint of the flavors and stories Statman brings to life on the two disc set. Bluegrass, jazz, old time, and yes, a hint of klezmer now and again fit naturally together across twenty five tunes which range from Shabbos Nigun to 21st Century Chicken Shack Blues to Long Journey Home. It’s a journey worth the taking.
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