Jewish World Review Oct. 22, 2002 / 16 Mar-Cheshvan, 5763

Television freylachs... and other klezmer madness

By Paul Wieder | "John Coltrane, Trouble Funk, Yossele Rosenblatt..." This is the sound of David Krakauer listing his influences. The sound of his clarinet is closer to that of an envelope being pushed, or a roof being raised.

After earning his master's degree at Juilliard, Krakauer played with orchestras in Brooklyn and Philadelphia, but also with the groundbreaking Kronos Quartet and troublemaking John Cage. After discovering klezmer- "some musicians were rehearsing in my neighborhood, and it just grabbed me"- he has risen to the heights of the form; for instance, Krakauer accompanied Itzhak Perlman in his "In the Fiddler's House" appearance on David Letterman.

In September, Krakauer fronted his new band, Klezmer Madness!, as one of the headliners in Chicago's World Music Festival. He powered his half-rock (guitar, bass, drums) half-not (accordion, clarinet, bass clarinet) ensemble, his first as bandleader, through the tracks of their new album, "The Twelve Tribes." Klezmer Madness! sped through many of the album's genre-bending numbers- one marries a bulgar with a 12-bar blues; one explores the vagaries of electronic communication ("Queen of the Midnight Fax"); one raucously klezmer-izes old TV theme songs. And one, "The New Year After..." commemorates the cataclysm of September 11, using the clarinet as a plaintive shofar.

Technically, he is fleet-fingered, able to slide several notes into one seamlessly, and a master of circular breathing, making one note extend for an entire minute if needed. In Chicago, he matched his Ivan-Lendl precision with John-McEnroe passion, inspiring the disaffected twenty-something bar crowd into whirling horas and even breakdancing... until a couple of their grandparents showed them how to really cut a rug and make it kosher.

Introducing "Television Freylachs," Krakauer explained that he was looking for an American Jewish "folklore," and came to the realization that the one unifying force our culture may have is that one-eyed idol, with its stories and songs. With more albums like "The Twelve Tribes," perhaps today's Jews will start collecting a genuinely Jewish folklore instead of a borrowed one.

To klezmer fans, Krakauer might best be known for his work on the first three Klezmatics albums. Their latest effort, "Rise Up! Shteyt Oyf!" is neither lively or daring enough to justify that title. Aside from the anti-fanaticism "I Ain't Afraid" and the sorrowful "Gayster (Ghosts)," they seem more like the Automatics (as in pilot) on this outing. Alone, each is one of the best players in the business, so perhaps their many individual side projects have sapped their collective creativity. Their other recent CDs, excellent ones at that, involved other artists- Chava Alberstein on "The Well," Tony Kushner on "Possessed"- so another possibility is that they have become overly dependent on outsiders. There is nothing particularly wrong with "Shetyt Oyf!," but it is not the work of the fearlessly wicked virtuosi their listeners expect... and deserve. For that, klez fans should try their newly re-released "Jews With Horns."

While the Klezmatics were busy rummaging in the recycling bin, a major label unearthed some buried treasure in its own vaults. Epic recently found the plates of Jewish albums that somehow escaped WWII scrap-metal drives and used them to reissue three groundbreaking albums of Jewish music: Dave Tarras' "Tanz," Abe Schwarz' "The Klezmer King," and the Yiddish compilation "From Avenue A to the Great White Way." All boast excellent sound, vintage artwork, and detailed liner notes.

If Dave Tarras sounds like every other klezmer clarinetist, perhaps that's because they all sound like him. "Tanz!" (not to be confused with Tim Sparks' stunning new guitar CD, "Tanz") was originally released in 1955. With his arranger, Stan Musiker, Tarras entwines klezmer with other ethnic sounds to get a "Roumanian Fantasy," a "Yemenite Tanz," and even a Yiddish "Tango." Tarras was called "The Jewish Benny Goodman" (yes, but that's the joke) in his day, and deserves that lofty comparison for his fluidity and charm. This is New World klezmer at its birth, and it is as much fun now as when you could tell a Caddy from a Chevy. Oh-- "tanz" is Yiddish for "dance."

Bursting with 25 tracks, "The Klezmer King" is one of the best-sounding textbooks you'll ever hear. Bucharest-born violinist Abe Schwartz was one of the architects of American klezmer and the ensemble structure that produced it; the earliest song here was recorded in 1917. Listening to the CD has the same magical effect as rummaging through a dusty trunk in the attic; it will- or should- become required listening for klezmer musicians worldwide.

More vaudeville than klezmer, the enticing "From Avenue A to The Great White Way" shows this progression on its two CDs. The first is a series of novelty tunes which chronicle the greenhorn take on the red-white-and-blue. One laments the inescapability of the then-hit "Yes, We Have No Bananas"; Molly Picon sings the song of a hot-dog vendor; and then there is "Yes Sir, That's My Baby," the Yiddish remix. The second CD shows the converse- the affect of Yankel on Yankee. Hits by Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, and Fanny Brice give way to Mildred Bailey and Cab Calloway singing in Yiddish; there is also the theme song the ADL never knew it had: "Since Henry Ford Apologized to Me." The coy flirtatiousness in one listen of "Who'll Buy My Bublitchki?" ("Will it be you-blitchki?") is worth a thousand of the brazen "Oops, I Did It Again." Twenty-somethings should enjoy "Avenue A" as much as their grandparents.

A much newer band well aware of the klezmer tradition, Kugel (formerly Shawn's Kugel), has just released its third CD. Like their previous releases, "Finger Play" contains two main styles of song. One is new songs in the traditional klezmer form, dedicated to family and friends: "Rebecca," "Emily," and the musical birthday present, "Steve's 41." The other are the opposite- traditional songs done in newer styles. This format yields a funky "Ein Kelohaynu" and a samba-fied "Ma Yafe Hafom." Shawn Weaver, who baked this Kugel, adeptly plays several reeds and woodwinds, also taking the vocals on a Sephardi-jazz version of the Grateful Dead hit "Touch of Grey" (no, really, it works) which recalls their use of the Rolling Stone's "Paint It Black" on their debut release.

From Dave (Tarras) to David (Krakauer), klezmer has inspired generations of clarinetists and other madmen. Let's hope we never find the cure.

Enjoy this writer's work? Why not sign-up for the daily JWR update. It's free. Just click here.

JWR contributor Paul Wieder is a public relations associate at the Jewish United Fund and a columnist for JUF News. Contact the author or the magazine by either clicking here, or calling (312) 444-2853.


© 2002, JUF News