Making old-world music new

by Seth Rogovoy

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass., Aug. 22, 1996 -- Klezmer is typically regarded as an Eastern European-derived, Jewish party music from the 19th and early 20th-century, played by traveling musicians at weddings and other joyful occasions and featuring fiddle, clarinet, accordion and horns. For the most part, klezmer has remained an ethnic music, only occasionally surfacing in more popular arenas, most notably in the klezmer-like opening bars of George Gershwin's "Rhapsody In Blue," in the klezmer- like tones of jazz clarinetists Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw and Ziggy Elman, and through the gauzy, musical filter of Broadway's "Fiddler On the Roof."

But over the last two decades or so, there has been a revival of interest in klezmer music, with repertory bands, most notably the Klezmer Conservatory Band and the Klezmorim, sprouting up around the country. Interest in klezmer has perhaps peaked this summer with "In the Fiddler's House," the album, PBS-TV special and summer-shed tour led by violinist Itzhak Perlman and several well-known klezmer groups, including Brave Old World, the Klezmer Conservatory Band and the Klezmatics.

Perhaps the most exciting trend in klezmer is the innovative use of the tradition by some downtown jazz artists who don't approach it as a fossilized object of ethnomusicological interest but as a living form worthy of updating and experimentation. Up until now, the most notable exponents of the new klezmer have been the Klezmatics and John Zorn. The former takes traditional klezmer and tweaks it a bit, making it sound more contemporary by adding rock, hip-hop and jazz influences. Zorn, perhaps the spiritual leader of this movement, sometimes called Radical Jewish Culture, is an avant-garde saxophonist whose group, Masada, combines Jewish and klezmer-like themes with Ornette Coleman-style harmolodics for a kind of fusion of klezmer and free jazz.

With the release of "Klezmer Madness" on Zorn's record label, Tzadik, clarinetist David Krakauer, a former member of the Klezmatics, stakes his claim as a leading performer and innovator in the new-klezmer movement. On "Klezmer Madness," Krakauer combines traditional klezmer forms with a variety of jazz and funk influences to come up with a unique fusion full of wit, personality and the sort of sophistication one would expect from a musician whose background includes stints with the Philadelphia Orchestra, New York Philomusica, Music From Marlboro and various other chamber music groups.

Krakauer will be bringing his trio, including accordionist Ted Reichman and percussionist John Hollenbeck, to St. James Church on Main Street in Great Barrington on Tuesday, Aug. 27 at 7, in a concert sponsored by Congregation Ahavath Sholom. Tickets are $17 in advance and $20 at the door and can be reserved by calling (413) 528-4197. Children under 12 are free.

Although Krakauer is Jewish and was raised in a very musical home, he never heard klezmer music while growing up. "The only Jewish tune I heard was `Hava Nagilah,'^" said Krakauer in a phone interview from his apartment in New York City. "I didn't grow up with any Chanukah songs or any Israeli songs. I basically grew up listening to Schnabel playing the late Beethoven piano sonatas, and when I was eleven Sidney Bechet."

Yet when he finally began learning and playing klezmer music about 10 years ago, it was as if he had been hearing it all his life. "As soon as I started to play klezmer music, I had the feeling that I knew it very well," he said. "Somehow there was this incredible recognition, and I had to conclude that what I was hearing in the music was the sound and the inflection of my grandmother's very heavily, Yiddish-tinged English.

"I realized that klezmer music was the Yiddish language in music, and I felt in a certain way that I had found a kind of musical home."

Discovering klezmer after years of playing primarily classical music in chamber ensembles opened up doors for Krakauer that had long been shut. "I had given up on my jazz playing when I was in my early twenties to concentrate on my classical career," said Krakauer, who has recorded for the Nonesuch, Eva, Opus One and CRI labels. "But when I got into klezmer, it was a kind of lubricant, leading me back to improvising and composing."

In addition, playing freestyle klezmer, which he approaches much as a jazz musician approaches a standard -- paying homage to the melody and form but using it as a launching pad for his own ideas and experiments - - allowed Krakauer to make use of the various clarinet techniques he had been experimenting with.

"A lot of my compositions are based on exploring the possibilities of the clarinet, such as circular breathing, multiphonics, different fingerings, crazy stuff with the overtone series on the instrument, the natural overtones, and then putting all these experiments into klezmer," said Krakauer.

The result is a dazzling, soulful, provocative music that combines the melancholy sonorities of traditional klezmer, the influences of jazz greats like Charlie Parker and John Coltrane, and a thoroughly contemporary sensibility.

"To find a music that can stretch back to my heritage, my lineage, my grandmother's generation, to the language of my ancestors, this for me was somehow very important," said Krakauer, who has given numerous solo appearances and residency workshops throughout the U.S. under the auspices of the Affiliate Artists program and the Concert Artists Guild. "And then to take it and to work with it and improvise with it, I think that that was a way for me to connect up a lot of elements of what I was trying to do."

In January, Krakauer joined the Kronos Quartet as a guest artist to perform and record Osvaldo Golijov's "The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind." The album is due for release this fall, when Krakauer will again join Kronos in concert. Also this year, Krakauer appeared as a soloist with the Brooklyn Philharmonic, performing Robert Starer's "Kli Zemer" concerto; as a solo performer for Luciano Berio's 70th birthday celebration concert at the 92nd Street Y; and as the leader of his trio as part of John Zorn's Radical Jewish Culture Festival at Merkin Concert Hall.

Krakauer is on the clarinet and chamber music faculties of the Manhattan School of Music and the Mannes College of Music. He has composed works for Newband, Goliard, the AIDS Quilt Songbook and his own improvisational/theatrical solo performances. This fall Krakauer will perform with the Kronos Quartet, with whom he will appear on an upcoming recording. More information is available on the David Krakauer home page.

This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on August 22, 1996.
Copyright Seth Rogovoy 1996. All rights reserved.

Seth Rogovoy
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