During the revival of klezmer music in the 1980s, Jewish musicians like The Klezmatics claimed that they were not playing their fathers' kind of klezmer. They suggested instead that their new alt-klezmer style borrowed more from their grandfathers' music, from a more troubled and politically engaged generation. The 1980s' generation developed a flexible approach to klezmer that was, and remains, open to other styles, and also refused to be locked inside religious or other imposed boundaries. The musicians wanted to say something meaningful about the state of the world beyond Jewish culture. Such bold convictions contributed to the crossover popularity of alt-klezmer.
Three new releasesby guitarist Yoshie Fruchter's Pitom, The Klez Dispensers and vocalist Rebecca Teplowgo some way towards closing the gap between this generation's musicians and their parents. But they also demonstrate how klezmer has recently become more conservative and mainstream: the albums are well put together but lack the urgent spark of creativity that led to the 1980s' revival of the music.
Guitarist Yoshie Fruchter's Pitom band has its own, steroid-laden, fusionist take on klezmer. The band features violin and viola player Jeremy Brown and an aggressive rhythm section comprising bassist Shanir Blumenkranz and drummer Kevin Zubek. Fruchter navigates the high octane quartet between references to reed player John Zorn's Masada songbook and Sonic Youth in their more melodic moments, and also pays clear debts to composer Frank Zappa's convoluted rhythms.
Each track adheres to much the same template. Fruchter begins with a power chord, which is answered by Brown, and Blumenkranz and Zubek start pushing. But as with other outfits who try to follow Zorn's Masada aesthetic, you are all too aware that the calibre of creative musicians Zorn chose for his Masada groupsguitarist Marc Ribot or violin player Marc Feldman, for instanceare not present among Pitom's players. The band does not come close to either Ribot's ecstatic intensity or Feldman's nuanced emotional impact.
Pitom impresses more when they translate the edgy musical language of Sonic Youth into a kind of powerhouse orchestrated alt-klezmer, as on "Skin and Bones," and to lesser degrees on "Minim Part Two" and "The Dregs." But unfortunately, such moments are infrequent.
Visit Yoshie Fruchter's Pitom on the web.
The Klez Dispensers
Say You'll Understand
The Klez Dispensers have been performing exuberant and theatrical arrangements of klezmer and Yiddish classics since the late 1990s. The band presents an entertaining brew of East European Jewish freylekhs and horas, Latin cha-chas and jazz dances like the Charleston, with clever bop references. It's all performed by musicians who really love the music and know how to play with it. On this, their third album, they remain faithful to the dance-party spirit of the mid-20th century golden age of American-Yiddish swing. That style often comes with a charismatic female vocalist, and the Dispensers' Susan Watts, who also plays the trumpet, fits the bill. There's also some traditional violin whining (from Amy Zakar) and swinging lead clarinet (from alt-klezmer master Alex Kontorovich).
The band alternates between genre classics and originals cut from the same cloth, all performed with delicate and focused interplay. As an experienced performing ensemble, they save the hits to the last part of the program, when the audience is already on its feet. These include a rousing arrangement of the traditional "Goldenshyeyn Sirbas," the soulful ballad "Lieben Shmertzen," the fast-paced "Sirba," and a playful arrangement of one of the greatest Yiddish hits, "Bay Mir Bistu Sheyn."
Visit The Klez Dispensers on the web.
New Jersey-based vocalist Rebecca Teplow is actually a classically trained violinist who studied under Itzhak Perelman, but her second release treads the same vocals-orientated ground as her debut, Prayers/Tefilot (Self Produced, 2004)that is, interpreting liturgical Jewish texts, all sung in Hebrew. With her warm voice, passionate delivery, and strong original melodies, Teplow aims to awaken the soul to the comforting presence of God.
She is at her best in intimate, low key arrangementsjust her, her piano and maybe some double bass, cello and guitarwhere she impresses with her vocal range and precise delivery of the texts. She does so particularly beautifully on "Gam Ki Elech" and the title track. But the album in general suffers from over-production, which frequently overwhelms Teplow with flamboyant arrangements. The kitschy guitar on "Min Hametzar," the melodramatic rock arrangement of "Hinei Kel," and the syrupy arrangement of "Vaani" are memorable for all the wrong reasons.
Visit Rebecca Teplow on the web.
Tracks and Personnel
Tracks: Skin and Bones; Go Go Golem; The Robe of Priestly Proportions Part I; The Robe of Priestly Proportions Part II; Freigel Rock; Lungs and Spleen; Shikora; Minim Part I; Minim Part II; The Dregs; The Binding of the Burning Books; Davita; Sadie's Splinter.
Personnel: Yoshie Fruchter: guitar; Kevin Zubek: drums; Shanir Blumenkranz: bass; Jeremy Brown: violin, viola.
Say You'll Understand
Tracks: Papirosn; Ray Charleston; Oy Mame; Gregg's Hora; Millville Freylekh; Sheyn Vi Di Levone; Joseph, Joseph; Fischer Tanz; Belz, Mayn Shtetele Belz; Goldenshteyn Sirbas; Liebes Shmertzn; Sirba; Bay Mir Bistu Sheyn.
Personnel: Susan Watts: vocals, trumpet; Alex Kontorovich: clarinet, saxophone; Ben Holmes; trumpet; Audrey Welber; saxophones; Amy Zakar; violin; Adrian Banner: piano; Heather Versace: bass; Gregg Mervine: drums.
Tracks: Bircat Kohanim; Nachon Libi; Im Amarti; Shema Intro; Shema; Min Hametzar; Ani Maamin Intro; Ani Maamin; Gam Ki Elech; Vaani; Kaveh; Esa Enai; Hinei Kel; Gam Ki Elech Piano Reprise; Peyrasti.
Personnel: Rebecca Teplow: piano, Hammond B3, vocals; David Morgan: piano, keyboard, Hammond B3, electric guitar; Daryl Kojak: piano; Ben Hyman: acoustic and electric guitar; Dave Richards: bass; Andrew Frawley: drums, percussion; Jon Shiffman: drums, percussion; Mary Wooten: cello; Lior tein: flute; Joe Teplow: vocal drums; vocals; Tamara Teplow: vocals.