Klezmerfest!- Aaron Alexander, drums; Brian Glassman,bass; Jordan Hirsch, trumpet; Greg Wall,clarinet; Zevy Zions, accordion.
All of the selections on this delightful recording, including several original compositions by group members, adhere to early 20th century European and American performance practice. Names such as Belf, Brandwein, Tarras, and Hoffman are familiar to those who have been following this music since the onset of the “klezmer revival” in the late 1970’s.
The album opens with “Der Alte Tziganer” (The Old Gypsy), written for a theater production by the brilliant composer Abe Ellstein, a personal hero of mine. This performance is, to my ear, extremely vital rhythmically, starting out with a device popularized in polka bands, the accordion “bellows-shake,” masterfully done by Zev Zions. His work is first rate throughout the piece. Note also the alternation of melody between the trumpet, clarinet, and accordion, and the two-bar exchanges (‘trading twos’) between Greg and Zev.
“Bulgarski Zhok,” by the Rumanian clarinetist known as Belf, begins with another unusual accordion introduction – melody played in the left hand. The rhythm, a triple meter with the second beat omitted, is a classic klezmer dance form of Rumanian origin. Played rather quickly here, it’s an exciting performance. Note the switch from bowed bass to pizzicato upon the entrance of the ensemble, the modern drum effects in the middle of the piece, and the accordion obbligato under the “B” section of the melody.
“Balagan Balaban,” an original by drummer Aaron Alexander, has a most fetching melody, played as a khusid’l, a slow to moderate duple-meter dance. Unusual ideas: the switching of mutes by trumpeter Jordan Hirsch and the ‘8/8’ section (3-3-2, with accents 1-2-3 1-2-3 1-2).
“Cape May Bulgar,” by Zev Zions, opens with a lovely doina section featuring the accordion in a quasi-cantorial improvisation, sans tempo, underpinned by bowed bass, followed by a bulgar, the standard freylakh dance. The tempo is just right, a real dance tempo recalling the classic Tarras-Sam Musiker-Max Epstein recordings, and the tune itself compares favorably with those of the pioneers.
“Fun Tashlikh,” composed by the brilliant clarinet master Naftule Brandwein, opens with Aaron’s drums playing the melody! The unison between trumpet and low-register clarinet sounds Middle-Eastern, a concept favored by Naftule. Listen to the drum solos –again formulated around the melody, with jazz-flavored ‘kicks’ added for spice. The horns return to trade phrases with the drums, leading into some quasi-Dixieland and free-jazz collective improvisation, slowly fading out.
“Fun der Khupe” (walking down after the wedding ceremony) begins with solo clarinet by Greg Wall, using the low and middle registers in a short doina and a statement of the melody. Listen for the varied and interesting drum effects behind the soloists.
The “Hoffman/Watts Medley” is named for members of one of the pioneer klezmer-music families from Philadelphia, the Hoffmans, in this case percussionist Jacob Hoffman, his daughter, percussionist Elaine (Etele) Hoffman Watts, and his granddaughter, trumpeter/vocalist Susan Watts. The tunes were popular in amulige Tzeiten (past years) in Philadelphia, which had a vital klezmer scene with its own specialized repertoire. The medley opens once more with a doina, played by the clarinet, followed by a zhok (alternately named Rumanian Horra); this melody has become popular and has been recorded by other groups. The freylakh “Etele” (Elaine’s Hebrew name) has an endemic sound – familiar phrases strung together in a different way.
The “Khusidl Medley” starts with Belf’s skvirsaya, introduced by Greg and joined by Jordan and Zev; the segment between the two tunes is masterfully filled by a cadenza in doina form by Jordan Hirsch for unaccompanied trumpet. The second piece was introduced to me by clarinet great Sid Beckerman in 1984; he probably learned it from his father, Shloimke, one of the three great European-born pioneers of the clarinet in the early years (the other two being Dave Tarras and Naftule Brandwein). It is here called “Zig-Zag,” and has also been known as a “Honga” (Rumanian khusid’l).
KLEZMERFEST continues its penchant for unusual instrumental statements by opening the next freylakh with a solo for bowed bass by the redoubtable Brian Glassman, whose classical training comes in handy here. The piece, “Kishinever Bulgar,” was published with my transcription in the repertoire book “The Compleat Klezmer,” co-authored by Henry Sapoznik and myself. Listen for the duet between Brian’s bass and Greg’s low-register clarinet later in the piece. At this juncture, I would like to mention Greg’s use of all of the registers of the clarinet, as opposed to the predominance of high-register playing in most klezmer clarinet work; I thoroughly approve.
The next medley, consisting of two selections, “Lebedik” and “Zilberne Khassene” (Silver Wedding) is made up of two standards from the early years (1920’s or before), connected by an imaginative drum interlude. Notice that Aaron can control the tempo – no rushing or slowing down – without losing energy or momentum.
Another freylakh medley follows, led off by an unusual piece by Dave Tarras with a weird title: “O Mortis.” This resembles a Rumanian violin specialty more than a Jewish dance – Dave loved Rumanian tunes and played them often. The second composition appears in the Kammen Dance Folio #1, the ‘bible’ of klezmer music published by J and J Kammen from the 1920’s and still in wide circulation as of this writing. The tune is called “Nokh a Bis’l” (a little more, probably relating to the wine or whiskey being served). All three sections are right there in Kammen; the last (minor) section was used as the basis of the popular song “Palesteena,” composed by the ragtime/jazz pianist J. Russell Robinson in 1920.
Our album closes with a delightful khusid’l recorded by Belf and named after the Moldavian town of Sadigor, alternately called “Moldovanskaya Honga” (Moldavian Honga). It should be stated that the names given to these pieces were often made up by recording company executives for label identifications, not by the composers, who were often unknown.
What is instantly apparent is the stylistic fidelity of the players, the blend between trumpet (open and muted), clarinet, accordion, and bowed bass in melodic ensemble playing, the correctness of dance tempos, the complete lack of shtick, and, above all, the inherent musicality and taste of each and every musician in each and every piece.
Make no mistake, dear listeners – this is the emese zakh (real thing)…… It is totally honest and completely true to the ideals of the music. It just doesn’t come any better.