Two new CDs showcase the diverse styles and influences that drive modern klezmer music
By Harvey Pekar

THE INTEREST generated by "world music" isn't going to fade. World music is, after all, the folk, popular and even classical music of peoples unfamiliar to listeners in Western Europe and the U.S. That covers a huge amount of excellent, fascinating material.

What's happening all over the globe is a wonderful, exciting cross-pollination process with musicians from North and South America, Europe, Africa and Asia listening to and being influenced by each other's sounds. Various forms and genres are being synthesized, and new ones are emerging. We're living in a musical golden age.

One of the more interesting developments has been the revival of klezmer music, as two provocative new CDs--the Klezmania collection (Shanachie) and Jews and the Abstract Truth by the Frank London and Greg Wall's Hasidic New Wave (Knitting Factory)--demonstrate.

The Eastern European origins of this form of Jewish folk music aren't well documented, but by the late 19th century, klezmer had absorbed ideas from various European and Near Eastern sources, although it retained its Semitic character.

For a time it was quite popular with Jewish immigrants in the U.S., where klezmer artists integrated American pop and jazz elements into their work. With the fading of Yiddish culture here, however, klezmer music became almost extinct. It was revived in the 1970s by Israeli Giora Feidman, formerly a classical clarinetist, and in America by the Klezmorim, a Berkeley group, and by Kapelye from New York.

The earliest klezmer revivalists tried to recreate 1920s styles, but, as it had in Europe, the genre evolved. Musicians like Andy Statman brought jazz, classical and even bluegrass influences into it. New England Conservatory of Music teacher Joe Maneri, an expert on microtonal music, actually had been blending klezmer, jazz, modern classical, Greek and other forms since the 1950s.

Hankus Netsky, Maneri's student and later a teacher at the New England Conservatory of Music, founded at that school the Klezmer Conservatory Band, which included clarinetist Don Byron, trumpeter Frank London and vibist/marimbaist Greg Selker, who, with others, went on to expand klezmer music until now you can hear influences ranging from R&B and rap to Afro Cuban.

Klezmania was produced by Henry Sapoznik, a founder of Kapelye and one of the foremost authorities on the history of the klezmer movement. The anthology contains a variety of selections illustrating the diversity in today's klezmer movement. Even relatively traditional performances such as Boiled in Lead's "Sher" exhibit a rock influence, as does "Tum Balalaika," from the 1960s LP Twistin' the Freylakhs (by uncredited musicians), which Sapoznik has included as an example of the "klezmer-beach" sound.

A mixture of klezmer, R&B and rap mixture can be heard on Crown Heights Affair's "Godchildren of Soul." Pleasing jazz/klezmer amalgams distinguish the Paradox Trio's "Alts Far Gelt" and the New Klezmer Trio's "Washing Machine," both of which feature clarinetists--Paradox's Matt Darriau and New Klezmer's Ben Goldberg--who've performed in a variety of contexts.
The avant-garde is represented by the Roy Nathanson/Anthony Coleman duo's version of "Sadegurer Khosid'l," which samples a 1917 recording, and clarinetist Byron's "Voliner," on which his vast frame of musical reference is put to good use.

SIGNIFICANTLY, some of the musicians performing here aren't Jewish. Artists should feel free to draw on any genre; we all benefit if they do. Frank London, represented on Klezmania by tracks with the popular Klezmatics and his own piece from the soundtrack of the documentary The Shvitz, appears with tenor saxophonist Greg Wall leading Hasidic New Wave on Jews and the Abstract Truth. Like Byron, Frank has a wide range of musical interests, and exhibits them on this Knitting Factory CD, his most ambitious release to date. The stimulating album contains selections described by the leaders as "an abstraction of wedding music--horas, freylekhs, marches and nigunim--and other traditional Jewish songs along with original compositions and group improvisations."

THE ARRANGEMENTS for this quintet, which includes guitarist Dave Fiuczynski, bassist Kenny Davis and drummer Aaron Alexander, are relatively tight, and there's a very strong jazz element--Ornette Coleman's influence, for instance, is easily discernible. London and Wall improvise very well; London's style seems to have evolved from the work of Booker Little and Don Cherry. He's got a fine range and good technique and plays aggressively.
Wall's approach has been derived from a vast number of tenormen, most obviously those in the John Coltrane school. His tone is broad and rather soft, and he uses vibrato sparingly but effectively. Fiuczynski, an original stylist with roots in jazz, rock and C&W, also contributes substantive solos. A particularly interesting track is "Welcome to the McDonalds in Dachau," on which London, Wall and guest Ben Goldberg, on bass clarinet, engage in collective unaccompanied improvisation. Here and elsewhere, London produces a variety of textures, sometimes with mutes, something contemporary trumpeters don't do much of these days.

The high degree of technical skill, knowledge and creativity evidenced by group members here augurs well for the future of klezmer music, which is growing rapidly in varied directions.

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From the June 26-July 2, 1997 issue of Metro.
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