The latest offering from pianist Burton Greene, Calistrophy,
is a curious blend of klezmer, blues, swing, free form, Latin, Balkan and plain old straight ahead jazz. Greene, a founding member of the '60s cutting edge Free Form Improvisation Ensemble, was, with his group Klezmokum, also among the first to reacquaint contemporary jazz with klezmer. Joining Greene on this effort, and billed as the Klez-Thetics, are Hungarian reeds player Akos Laki and Klezmokum's core rhythm-masters drummer Roberto Haliffi and tubaist Larry Fishkind.
While frantic freilachs and bulgars highlight many klez/jazz projects, Calistrophy
leans more heavily on improvisational doinas and cantorial modes. This is not to say that Calistrophy
doesn't swing; it does. Greene is able to draw upon his facility with tempo and phrasing to give the session an up-beat feel, while at the same time making use of klezmer's "nshomah," or soul, to infuse each piece with depth and feeling. Haliffi's crisp drumming moves smoothly through difficult rhythm changes, and Fishkind's steadfast lines allow Greene and Laki to effortlessly change modes. Such is the case in this treatment of "Ay Nshomah" which premiered on the first Klezmokum release. Laki's clarinet and Fishkind's tuba embrace the simple melody to pull off subtle style changes. The title track makes use of halting tempos against which Greene plays a bit of cantorial piano that surprises with its dissonant ending; added touches of Latin-influenced sax and percussion result in a multifarious listening experience.
"In the Footsteps of Bratslav" fronts a classic Hasidic tune that forces the clarinet to pray or "daven" into avant-garde ecstasy. "Babbameisa Drama" moves from Romanian to swing as its pleasant melody evolves; tuba and drums improvise but continue to retain a hint of the melodic structure. The "Rat Dance/Corporate Rat Klezmer" melody develops abstrusely into a caricature of itself, exploding into free-form high jinks until the final refrain becomes intentional self-parody. While "Moldavian Blues" is more Chicago than Moldavia, the Hungarian folk of "Lovamat" blends easily with Laki's wonderfully rich bass clarinet. "A Cozy Winter Veggy Soup," after a straight jazz opening, again offers subtle changes that make for an interesting piece. The fiery finale, "Irc Moldavensec", uses a traditional Moldavian folk melody and some hot freygish clarinet playing that is driven to a second climax by Haliffi's energetic drum solo.
Calistrophy remains fresh after multiple listenings, due mainly to Greene's playing and direction. He is able to infuse each piece with clever twists and turns that become more apparent with time. Although the styles are varied, Greene melds them into a peculiar mix that delights and satisfies.
Note: this review originally appeared in All About Jazz: New York .
Personnel: Burton Greene: piano, Akos Laki: clarinet, alto sax; Larry Fishkind: tuba; Roberto Haliffi: drums, perc.