British Klezmer/Jazz Fusion

Elliott Simon By

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The re-acquaintance of klezmer, Eastern European Jewish modes and rhythms, with American jazz is currently at its height. Initially, Jewish immigrant musicians arriving during the late 1800s and early part of the twentieth century brought with them a standard traditional repertoire. In the 1920s and 30s a symbiotic relationship began to develop with jazz due in part to clarinet virtuosos such as Dave Tarras and Naftule Brandwein. Klezmer became jazzier and jazz became a little more Jewish. Witness klezmer standards like Harry Kandel's 'Jakie Jazz em up' (Jakie jazz 'em up Old Time Klezmer Music 1912-1926, Global Village 101) and jazz hits like 'Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen' and Ziggy Ellman's 'And the Angels Sing (Freylekh in Swing) ' based on the klezmer standard 'Der Shtiller Bulgar'.

With assimilation and the demise of swing, the jazz/klezmer fusion seemed to be relegated to a historical footnote. However, the 1990s and current decade have seen an unprecedented growth in klezmer/jazz and klezmer/avant-garde collaborations. Bands such as Naftule's Dream, The Klezmatics, Frank London's Klezmer Brass Allstars, David Krakauer's Klezmer Madness and many others freely move from one genre to the next and are creating a new music that is at times a true fusion of both. Likewise, NYC experimental artist John Zorn with over 80 releases on the Radical Jewish Culture branch of his Tzadik label and with his own Jewish improvisational group Masada has created a fertile breeding ground for a melding of Eastern European based Jewish music, modern jazz and experimental music.

While Germany, France, Canada and Holland among other countries have their own budding klez/jazz scene, the center of the genre has been the United States (primarily NYC). There has also, however, recently been an upswing of klezmer and klezmer/jazz fusion in Britain. The four CDs reviewed here present a potpourri of British based artists who are at the forefront of this nascent British scene.

Just East of Jazz

Formed in 1993, Just East of Jazz released their eponymously titled first CD in 1996 and is one of the premiere UK bands mixing Eastern European modes and original melodies within a jazz format. Fronted by reedman Jeremy Shoham on alto and soprano saxophones and Eb clarinet, the group can mix up a delightfully spicy world music stew or play straight ahead with ease. Feast , the band's third CD features 10 original tunes, most penned by Shoham. The addition of pianist Neil Angilley who also plays keyboards and accordion has greatly expanded the band's possibilities. Shoham soars on CD opener 'Eastbound' that due to the versatile rhythm section of bassist Phil Scragg and drummer Rick Finley effortlessly glides from klezmeresque mode to a penchant for post-bop.

A solo piano sets a pensive mood on 'Requiem and Tanier' that is buttressed by a very understated bass and drums. Angilley displays an experienced unrushed touch as the cut wends its way toward a satisfying conclusion. 'Fatour' picks up the pace as an unabashed Shoham solo klezmer romp to the accompaniment of band finger snaps and claps. The band spreads its wings and improvisational expertise on the somewhat funky 'Shtetl Hopping' while 'Ciudad Caliente' pays homage to a Sephardi influence with a Spanish guitar/soprano sax duet that gives way to a Latin sounding percussive groove. 'Mud Pie' penned by bassist Scragg and 'Hamzah's Groove' are showcases for some more funky rhythms courtesy of bass/drums and piano/accordion that allow Shoham to heat things up on sax with some very precise brisk playing. The quirky accordion and soprano sax adventure 'Dance of the Hayseeds' and the jazzy piano/sax romp 'Tselov's Feast' lead to the solo piano melancholia of 'Water's Edge'. Just East of Jazz has indeed produced a smorgasbord of delights that is a Feast for any aural palette

Gilad Atzmon & The Orient House Ensemble
Enja/Justin Time JENJ 3305-2

With Exile recently being named CD of the year at the 2003 BBC Jazz Awards , if he hadn't already, Gilad Atzmon has solidified himself as a superstar of klezmer/Mideastern/jazz fusion. A follow up to their self-titled 2000 release (Enja Tiptoe TIP 888839-2), Exile is a fiery musical and political statement performed by musicians currently living in exile. Atzmon along with several other band members were born in Israel while singer Reem Kelani is Palestinian, oudist and vocalist Dhafer Youssef is Tunisian and other musicians hail from Italy and Romania.

Part plea for understanding among Israelis and Palestinians and part indictment of Zionist oppression, Exile succeeds on many levels. In an effort to highlight the irony of the current Palestinian/Israeli situation, Atzmon has re-tooled several standard Jewish and Israeli pieces within a Palestinian framework. 'Al-Quds' is set to an Israeli tune that in its original version celebrated the return of the Jewish people to Jerusalem. Here it opens with a Coltrane type plea and continues in that vein with new Arabic lyrics that highlight Palestinian longing and resistance. Atzmon shows himself to possess incredible range and sensitivity on clarinet and sax. The warmth of 'Jenin', the wistful 'Epilogue' (also present as an .mpeg video), the semi-free honking on "Al-Quds" and the unabashed klezmer clarinet of 'Orient House' reveal a mature world class player. Twelve musicians in total make up this version of the Orient House Ensemble for a very full sound that can be reminiscent of a Mid-Eastern Weather Report. Each musician is a stand out in their own right but special mention should go to the piano stylings of Frank Harrison on 'Land of Canaan' and the percussion work of Asaf Sirkis throughout. Exile is true world music that includes searing hot mid-eastern rhythms, the pathos of Eastern European melodies and the improvisational expertise of first class jazz. Without its geo-political orientation, Atzmon would have created a masterpiece of global jazz-fusion, with it, Exile is a work that takes the genre to new levels.

The Stewart Curtis Trio
33Records 33JAZZ071

Stewart Curtis is a multi-instrumentalist who with his band K(lezmer)-Groove has released two klezmer/jazz fusion CDs; Too Loud for Dinner (1995) with tracks like Hampton Court Freilach and Smoked Salmon Salsa (2000). This new CD by the Stewart Curtis Trio features Curtis on alto and tenor saxophones, clarinet, flute and recorder, Rob Terry on piano, and Robert Rickenberg on Double Bass with guest appearances by Chris Wells on percussion. All cuts on Saracubana, save the traditional 'Adon Olam', were written by BB Cooper who previously recorded with Curtis during the making of her ballet based on the Yiddish folktale, 'The Golem'. 'Mi Amore' begins this outing and reveals Curtis' round full tone with a jazzy piano accompaniment to a Latin sounding beat. 'BB goes Chopin' is a clarinet/piano classical/jazz interpretation of its namesake while the classic 'Adon Olam' is presented in a stripped down version with the bass initiating the melody to be picked up by Curtis's sax while the piano keeps the rhythm. A CD highlight is 'Fay's theme and Variations' that features a lovely classical flute intro that melds into a breezy treatment of the theme. The arrangements throughout are economical and are meant to showcase the melodies without extended improvisational forays. The title track has a Latin feel with a nice dose of klezmer clarinet whereas 'Bucky's Boo' is out and out blues. 'Cool It Mimsie' is a crisp blend of klezmer and jazz and 'Coops' is a celtic recorder and classical piano meld. CD closer 'Brana's Dance' is traditional klezmer clarinet with a quick piano accompaniment. Saracubana is a highly listenable showcase for Ms. Cooper's songs that pull inspiration from jazz, classical, klezmer, and Latin.

Shpil Klezmerl
Ethnomusic ETM01

While London clubs are home base for most of these British performers, Manchester seems to be developing its own new Jewish music scene. Drummer Guy Schalom and violinist/vocalist Jilah Bakhshayesh have released an intriguing CD that, though traditional in feel, makes good use of Guy Schalom's jazz/mideastern drumming background. Schalom has just the right touch to pull off a not often heard violin/drums duo. 'Dray Freilachs' features some adept bowwork to a martial beat while 'Los Bilbilicos' is a lovely presentation of a well-known Judeo-Spanish tune that features a violin/guitar duet between Jilah and guitarist Danny Lawrence.

The two cut loose on traditional pieces such as Brandwein's 'Wie Bist Die Gewesen Vor Prohibition (Where were you before Prohibition)' and 'Kandel's Hora' while 'Klezzified' allows both players plenty of room to showcase their improvisational skills with Schalom at times sounding like a Julius Epstein/Elvin Jones hybrid. A standout is their very timely version of 'Freylekhs Fun Der Khupe (From the Wedding Canopy)' that features a rocking drum and bass groove set up by Schalom against which the violin plays in traditional klezmer style, eloquently portraying the tension between old and new. Bakhshayesh's playing and vocals are expressive and capture the nuances that can make this music so laden with emotion.

All CDs are available from Jewish Music Distribution.


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