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Crossroads

Two musicians meet at the intersection of then and now

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Stop me if you’ve heard this one before:

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I”I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”

Sound familiar?

I recently stumbled across those lines by Robert Frost for the first time since high school. I don’t read much poetry these days; with a toddler in the house, my rhymes tend more toward the likes of, “Give a shout, give a cheer, let us know that you are here!”

So Frost’s poem got me thinking. The man himself said that it was a “very tricky” piece of verse, and I think that’s apt. You can read it as a celebration of the road less traveled, but the poem is ambiguous. (At least, that’s what all the poetry websites say. If Google had been around in the 1980s, I would’ve saved a bundle on Cliffs Notes.) Frost doesn’t so much say that the less obvious path is better, just that it’s different. Maybe.

Artists constantly face choices like this. No one has the time to explore every creative avenue available to him. At some point, you just have to choose one and stick with it long enough to see if it leads somewhere. Sometimes—often—things don’t pan out. But if enough people are willing to make brave and potentially stupid choices, you wind up with a lot of worthwhile experiments, some of which have very strange and unexpected relationships to one another.

Omer Klein and Frank London
Left: Omer Klein / Right: Frank London

“Dialects: Israeli Jazz and Klezmer,” a rather odd double-bill presented in September at Merkin Concert Hall in New York City, seemed designed to illustrate this last point. The show, which was sponsored by the American-Israeli Cultural Foundation in honor of the 60th anniversary of the State of Israel, featured Frank London‘s Klezmer Brass All-Stars and the Omer Klein Trio. At first blush, it’s hard to imagine two people with less in common, musically speaking. But upon closer inspection, London and Klein appear to be looking at Jewish music through different ends of the same telescope.

At this point in his career, London enjoys a reputation as an elder statesman of contemporary klezmer. When he joined the Klezmer Conservatory Band in 1980, he was one of a small group of young musicians who were intent on breathing life back into a dead musical language. Almost everyone who had grown up playing and listening to klezmer had either retired or expired. Things were grim.

Nearly three decades later, thanks in no small part to London’s work with the Klezmatics and Hasidic New Wave, his music for theater and film, and his teaching gigs at KlezKamp and KlezKanada, klezmer is a lively and many-splendored thing. It has absorbed massive doses of other music, from rap to reggae; won fans all over the world; and acquired its own festival circuit. And large clumps of it are no longer easily recognizable as Ashkenazi dance music meant for weddings and bar mitzvahs.

The Klezmer Brass All-Stars have both real and pretend roots in early klezmer. The group, which includes a couple of trumpets, several trombones, tuba, clarinet, drums and electric guitar, is allegedly modeled after a dissolute band of 19th century brass musicians known as Di Shikere Kapelye (“The Inebriated Orchestra”), which London claims “gave birth to the soul of klezmer and gave klezmorim their imperishable bad reputation.”

Right.

In any event, the All-Stars take material that either comes out of the traditional klezmer repertoire or sounds as if it did, and pump it full of funk, dissonance, and extended improvisation. The result is a very postmodern gloss on traditional Eastern European Jewish music, part Harry Kandel and part Sun Ra. That inclusive, discursive approach can lead the ensemble from a relatively straight reading of a liturgical song like “Echad Mi Yodeah” into a bit of scatting (or is that a nigun?) by trumpeter Susan Watts, backed by swinging trombone riffs and a few wobbly chords from guitarist Brandon Seabrook that Bill Frisell would probably be delighted to stumble across.

If London is making old music sound new again, Klein is doing the opposite. The 26-year-old pianist is part of an Israeli expatriate community whose relatively small size belies its disproportionate prominence on New York’s music scene. A faction of that community has for some time been fashioning its own branch of jazz: one that takes its harmonic content and improvisational approach from canonical sources like Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Keith Jarrett, but looks to Middle Eastern and North African music for melodic and rhythmic spice. Bassist Omer Avital, the de facto leader of this charge, holds up the bottom end of the trio; the other member is drummer Ziv Ravitz, who signals his intentions with a hybrid drum kit that incorporates Middle Eastern instruments like a round frame drum and a goblet-shaped dumbek.

I’m tempted to call the music they produce a fascinating mishmosh of borrowed musical elements—the formal rigor of classical music, the improvisational and harmonic insignia of contemporary jazz, the rhythms and drones of the Arab world—but that would suggest a lack of unity or integration, and these guys have plenty of both. An original composition with the cool precision of a Chopin etude might lead smoothly into a vaguely North African groove before breaking into quicksilver piano lines supported by lightly swinging bass and drums. A rhythmically complex blues with a loping bassline might instigate a hand-drum solo. Everything fits neatly into everything else, and there’s nothing incongruous about any of it.

That inspired approach to musical borrowing, along with a strong desire to blend the old with the new, unites London’s and Klein’s seemingly disparate visions. Both men are magpies, willing to steal anything that catches their fancy. But both have an uncommon knack for putting it all together in a satisfying whole, and for broadening the purview of Jewish music—whether drawing from the deep well of Arab music (the regional inheritance of Israeli Jews), or building on the foundation of klezmer (the cultural inheritance of many diasporic ones).

Neither has chosen a particularly obvious or easy path. London and Klein both make the process of combining different types of music seem simple, when in fact it can be very tricky. But their adventurousness and willingness to experiment is balanced in equal measure by their sensitivity and good taste. And that has made all the difference.

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Crossroads

Two musicians meet at the intersection of then and now

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