Klezmer music, like jazz, has many manifestations. For some listeners, it represents the traditional dance rhythms and sensual sounds of Eastern European wedding music. Others identify it with the first surge of klezmer revival in the early 20th century, with high-spirited rhythms and improvisations reminiscent of the collective music of New Orleans jazz. And still others have been drawn to klezmer by young, post-'80s revivalists who have not hesitated to position the music in cutting-edge settings.
In all cases, one fundamental premise remains constant: Both klezmer and jazz have not only survived but also flourished as the result of their ability to continually re-emerge, phoenix-like, via the processes of absorption and transformation. Klezmer music is now heard throughout the world in a colorful array of styles and formats, from Wisconsin's humorously titled Yid Vicious and Germany's Mazel Tov to the briskly swinging New Orleans Klezmer All-Stars (who will appear at the Playboy Jazz Festival next Sunday) and Australia's Klezmania. But none combines the qualities of tradition and innovation any better than the New York-based Klezmatics, a group now well into its second decade.
"Rise Up!: Shteyt Oyf!"(Rounder)
Recorded a little more than a year after 9/11, "Rise Up!" is invested with an undercurrent touching both pensive mourning and, in the title track, sturdy defiance. Performed by the basic Klezmatics ensemble, the program is further enhanced by the presence of such additional players as pianists Myra Melford (playing harmonium) and Steve Sandburg and keyboardist Rob Schwimmer.
The album begins with a touching rendering of the anthem-like traditional song "Klezmorimlekh Mayne Libinke" (Beloved Klezmorim, My Dear Ones), sung in passionately keening style by the group's principal vocalist, Lorin Sklamberg. Typically, the music then takes a sudden shift of direction with pianist Frank London's instrumental "Kaz Un Moyz" (Cats and Mouse), which manages to blend a klezmer sensibility with a Latin rhythmic flow and improvising -- from Sandburg, violinist Steven Greenman and alto saxophonist Matt Darriau -- that cruises the outer edges of the jazz avant-garde.
And that's only the beginning. Other fascinating numbers include "Loshn-Koydesh" (Holy Tongues), which refers to the biblical Song of Songs via a homoerotic ballad describing the love of a Hebrew teacher for his student. "Hevl Iz Havolim" (Vanity Is Vanities) is a traditional text (to music by London) with a startlingly ageless message: "Vanity is vanities and the world runs on money." And "Yo Riboyn Olam" (Creator, Master of This World), a traditional piece sung in Aramaic, is a plea for spirituality unbounded by the bureaucracy of religions.
Perhaps most compelling of all is the title track, a classic from singer-songwriter Holly Near. The lyrics, sung in English and Yiddish, assert, "I ain't afraid of your Yahweh, I ain't afraid of your Allah, I ain't afraid of your Jesus, I'm afraid of what you do in the name of your god."
These powerful messages are framed in music that is consistently gripping, consistently far-reaching. The liner notes define the cultural energies at the source of that vibrant vitality: "The world of Jewish spirit," they write, "is a world of eternal tradition and ever-shifting invention." It's also the perfect definition for the music of the Klezmatics.
Rounder Records also has re-released a pair of earlier Klezmatics albums that offer some insights into the band's continuing creative process.
"Shvaygn = Toyt" (Rounder)
Recorded in 1988 with the Les Miserables Brass Band, the performance chronicles the Klezmatics in their earliest manifestation, focusing primarily on traditional repertoire. Even here, however, the group's iconoclastic manner lies just beneath the surface, in a program of songs with both Yiddish and Bavarian German roots, moving easily from the rhythms of the hora and freylekh to the waltz and the Zwiefacher.
"Rhythm + Jews" (Rounder)
Released in 1991, this CD features the dynamic clarinet work of David Krakauer and a set of tunes from the repertoire of the great early 20th century klezmer clarinetist Naftule Brandwein. Bursting with rhythmic energies, it also includes Sklamberg's erotic adaptation from the Song of Songs, "Honikzaft" (Honeyjuice), as well as a forecast, in "NY Psycho Freylekhs," of the sort of envelope-stretching to come in later years.