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June 5th, 2002 Zach Dundas (editor) | Sonic Reducer
 

We've Gone Klezmer Krazy!

Diaspora-a-go-go with Avenue A, Abe Schwartz, Dave Tarras, Frank London and Les Yeux Noirs.

     
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Abe Schwartz
The Klezmer King
(Columbia/Legacy)
Les Yeux Noirs
Balamouk (World Village)
Frank London's Klezmer Brass All-Stars
Brotherhood of Brass (Piranha)

Abe Schwartz stepped off the boat in 1899. By 1917, Schwartz, who learned fiddle from Bucharest Gypsies before heading for Ellis Island, was scouting Jewish talent for Columbia Records. His work as a player, tout and conductor helped define klezmer, a balls-out alchemy of Eastern European, Mediterranean and American music. The Klezmer King is part of a recent spate of archival releases documenting klezmer's first Golden Age, from the earliest days of the recording industry through the early '50s. By the standards of 1922 or 2002, King reigns, spitshine clear despite the rudimentary recording equipment used. Ranging from 1917 to 1935, the collection tracks klezmer's journey from obscure ghetto music to a dance genre with a broad American appeal. Oy, fancy that. Following that rise, klezmer was prematurely autopsied around midcentury. But the evolution Schwartz helped start continues through artists like France's Les Yeux Noirs (The Black Eyes). Balamouk, an album as sultry and forlorn as the Left Bank in August, even echoes Schwartz's own career, mingling Gypsy folk with emphatic, Gallic-accented klezmer, hinting at romantic new directions for the music's 21st-century incarnation. If Klezmer King and Balamouk work like the first and last chapters of a history book, Frank London (who's done time with both Klezmatics and Hasidic New Wave) rips out the pages, cuts them up and pastes them back together, William Burroughs style. Brotherhood of Brass intercuts pre-, post- and classic klezmer music from the Balkans, Argentina and beyond into a blazing uprising of flame-bright horns. Zach Dundas

Dave Tarras and the Musiker Brothers
Tanz! (Epic/Legacy)

One could argue that electronic music enjoyed by many a dehydrated youth of today is close kin to the sophisticated klezmer found on Tanz!, a just-reissued album recorded in 1955. Both rely on repetitious, seductive drum beats. The dueling clarinets of Dave Tarras and Sam Musiker take charge of melody, just as vinyl scratched on two turntables creates call and response. Tanz! even makes use of sampling, such as when Tarras lifts a line from a 1923 Naftule Brandwein recording. But what really unites the two genres is their underlying emotions: Both klezmer and techno seem haunted by an indefinable wistfulness. Which may be why Tanz!, a record that tried to infuse klezmer with swing and jazz, didn't go over so well when it hit the streets. Just as techno's frenetic dancefloor dystopia turns off many, Tanz!'s manic waves of frantic playing didn't gel with fans of big band's composure. The album doesn't sound audaciously genre-crossing to today's ears, but listen closely, and you hear the gates shaking during big finales and swing shouts of the horns. Many of the songs, such as "Der Neier Doina," with its free-jazz clarinet solos, are original compositions by Sam Musiker, and point to a direction this music could have headed--if it hadn't gone terribly out of fashion. In the 1970s, the likes of John Zorn and Hasidic New Wave rediscovered the trail Tarras and Musiker blazed, making Tanz! a vital addition to any klezmer collection. Caryn B. Brooks

Various Artists
From Avenue A to the Great White Way: Yiddish and American Popular Songs from 1914-1950 (Legacy)

Irving Berlin's mark on American culture survives through the literally thousands of renditions of his famous tunes. However, the second disc of this remarkable compilation begins with the composer himself delivering one of his most strikingly personal, least-known songs, "What Am I Gonna Do?"--to my knowledge, the only commercially available recording of Berlin's own voice. Several other familiar names in both Jewish and American music and theater--Al Jolson, Fanny Brice, Sophie Tucker, Eddie Cantor, Benny Goodman--are also represented here, often through previously unissued tracks. And alongside well-known artists sit incredibly obscure gems, both musical (a 1918 recording by the Jewish Orchestra sounds uncannily fresh-off-the-boat) and lyrical (including a chutzpadik topical song, The Happiness Boys' "Since Henry Ford Apologized to Me"). Songs have been sonically revived via brand-new vinyl masters pressed from the same metal "stampers" used for the original discs. A surprisingly indispensable roots-music (taka!) collection. Jeff Rosenberg

 
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