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A new sound for a traditional music

By The Klezmatics
Xenophile Records: 1997

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Dancing in the Aisles
Dancing in the Aisles
By The Klezmer Conservatory Band
Rounder Records: 1997

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These reviews first appeared in the May 31, 1997 edition of the American Reporter.

It's one of the hottest musical forms on the world beat scene: swirling, roiling, sweating, full of mysticism, underpinned by an irresistible beat that cries out like a siren song of dance. It's politically incorrect as all hell, though, invented as it was by dead white men. This klezmer is Yiddish folk music – the Jewish music of the Eastern European community. After the Holocaust, klezmer nearly died out along with the community that birthed it.

Now, though, klezmer experiencing a renaissance that is not only repopularizing the music but is changing it, helping it evolve to changing times, keeping it relevant to a contemporary audience.

Which isn't really that big of a leap. Like the blues, klezmer has always contained stories about life's disappointments and upsets. And like the blues, klezmer has always addressed those topics with a combination of good-natured resignation and stoic humor.

Two of the leading klezmer bands are The Klezmatics and The Klezmer Conservatory Band. Together, the two outfits represent the two sides of klezmer – the old-school, traditional streak that seeks to preserve the historic aspects of the music vs. the hard-charging revolutionaries who want to take the music into the future.

Of course, that's a simplification because while the young turks, The Klezmatics, do push the boundaries of klezmer, they can also play the traditional tunes as well as anyone. And the more traditional group, The Klezmer Conservatory Band, is no museum outfit, either, putting its own twist on the music.

The Klezmatics began as a kind of novelty act; young New Yorkers playing rock 'n' roll klezmer (their second CD, on Flying Fish, was titled "Rhythm 'n' Jews."). The musicianship was always top-notch, but they were basically a party band – great music with no larger purpose.

On their fourth album (third available in the U.S.), "Possessed," The Klezmatics have not only dropped the clever album titles (their last album was "Jews With Horns"), but have created a work that is as ambitious as it is musically sound. On this release, the sextet is trying to move klezmer into 20th Century America, with a song about smoking pot ("Mizmor Shir Lehanef (Reefer Song)" and a couple with lyrics in English by Broadway musical composer Tony Kushner.

As with their earlier albums, the music has inflections of rock, R&B and blues (and jazz keyboardist John Medeski of Medeski, Martin & Wood and the Either/Orchestra sits in as well). It is a new vision of klezmer, one more complete and polished than earlier Klezmatics albums.

The Klezmer Conservatory Band is an 11-piece orchestra that is far more traditional than The Klezmatics – kind of Mickey Katz without the schmaltz. Their selection on this album is partly traditional songs, partly 1930s Yiddish big band pieces, and partly originals that fit right in with the older material in both quality and style.

Vocalist Judy Bressler leads the band with an earthy, European style of singing, somewhere between Edith Piaf and Marlene Dietrich. Her voice is thick and rich, with a phenomenal range to boot.

While The Klezmatics bring huge doses of American folk musics to their vision of klezmer, The Klezmer Conservatory Band does the same with jazz. On the traditional "Kol Rina", the "mazl tovs" are interspersed with some incredible jazz solos by clarinetist Ilene Stahl. On "Mayn Yiddishe Meydele," pianist Javier Perez Saco puts down some tight jazz soloing.

On "Freylekh Fantastique," the band takes excerpts from classical music by Beethoven, Mozart, Tchaikovsky and others and arranges it into a Yiddish format. The band closes out with a tribute to the murdered Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin. It is a beautiful, moving dirge.

Taken together, the new albums by The Klezmatics and The Klezmer Conservatory Band show that klezmer is alive, doing very well, and ready for a new millennium.