David Krakauer's Klezmer incites, provokes

by Seth Rogovoy

GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., Aug. 28, 1996 -- A standing-room-only crowd jammed the pews and aisles of St. James Church on Tuesday night to worship at the altar of klezmer as interpreted by the David Krakauer Trio, which gave the centuries-old, Jewish party music with roots in Eastern Europe's Yiddish culture a distinctively contemporary, post- modern spin.

Krakauer's debut recording as a solo artist in this genre is called "Klezmer Madness!" (Tzadik), and indeed, those who came to the concert expecting to hear nostalgic renderings of the klezmer of their youth or of their parents' or grandparents' youth may well have concluded that Krakauer's work is a reflection of an unstable psyche. Like his compatriots in the downtown, Radical Jewish Culture movement, including John Zorn and his former bandmates in the Klezmatics, Krakauer approaches traditional klezmer as source material from which to create new compositions and improvisations which, while echoing and speaking to its origins in a lost Old World, speak most strongly and urgently of and to today.

To illustrate, Krakauer kicked off the evening with "Africa Bulgar," his rearrangement of the traditional tune, "Tsurik fun der milkhome," from the repertoire of Naftule Brandwein. Krakauer pierced through a drone laid down by accordionist Ted Reichman and percussion by John Hollenbeck with a mournful wail on his clarinet. The cry stopped, he counted, "one, two, three, four," Hollenbeck kicked into a funky backbeat and world-beat klezmer met John Coltrane as Krakauer alternated free-style improvisations with a melodic theme.

Krakauer explained that he was trying "to find the pieces of the puzzle that are missing" in the music and to build new structures upon them. Thus, "Souvenir of Kishinev," inspired by a visit to the Moldavian city with a tragic history for Jews, was an ironic piece that paired a propaganda-like, spoken-word talk about the city with simmering music that built to an ominous explosion, only to resolve in a joyful dance.

Krakauer was even more playful with "Television Freylakhs," which used bits of classic, TV theme music from the likes of "The Addams Family," "The Munsters" and "Twilight Zone" as source material for vibrant improvisation. On this and other numbers, drummer Hollenbeck was Krakauer's equal in stretching beyond the limits of the form to create a kind of Jewish bebop.

Krakauer the classically-trained musician who has worked with New York Philomusica and Music from Marlboro, among other chamber groups, was also evident in some of the more composed numbers, including the Viennese overtones of Dave Taras's "Gypsy Bulgar" and "Doina: Death March Suite," which combined traditional elements with some of Krakauer's own writing to create a harrowing "look at what was and what is no more." The funereal march was given an icy, metallic feeling by Hollenbeck's industrial rhythms, and Reichman's choppy, broken accordion lines, sliced by Krakauer's glissandi of horror, spoke to the violence and insanity of the Holocaust.

Krakauer brought the evening to a close with a pair of upbeat numbers. "Alt.Dot.Klezmer" was a funky blowfest for Krakauer's Coltranesque sheets of sound, and "Der Heyser Bogota Bulgar" crossed traditional klezmer with Latin rhythms.

The 350 or so folks who turned out for the event, a grassroots affair sponsored by Congregation Ahavath Sholom of Great Barrington -- as well as those who were turned away and who lingered at the church's windows in order to soak in some of the sounds of the Krakauer Trio before they got soaked by the rain -- were as much a testament to the music's undying appeal as were Krakauer's quirky and inventive improvisations. It also confirmed that creativity and integrity beats hype and commercialism at the Berkshire box office.

This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on Aug. 30, 1996.
Copyright Seth Rogovoy 1996. All rights reserved.

Seth Rogovoy
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