Monday, July 21, 2008

Radical Klezmer: New CDs from Paul Shapiro and Klez-Edge

I can understand how to many of you the title of this post, "Radical Klezmer," could sound like some kind of sarcastic joke. It isn't. Based on two new releases from John Zorn's Tzadik imprint, klezmer is not only alive and kicking, but undergoing a sort of creative resurgence not seen since Don Byron unearthed the music of Mickey Katz almost twenty years ago. Of the two CDs out this month, Paul Shapiro's "Essen" is more fun, while Klez-Edge's "Ancestors, Mindreles, Nagila Monsters" is more experimental and contains more variation. This is to be expected, of course, as Klez-Edge's leader, Burton Greene, was a figure in the early 60s New York free jazz scene, and recorded for ESP; others spotted on that label at the time included Albert Ayler and Marion Brown. His new project, like Shapiro's "Ribs and Brisket Revue," is not interested in creating free jazz so much as applying some of the concepts of free jazz to Klezmer music.

"Ancestors, Mindreles, Nagila Monsters" is successful because of it's variation. In addition to up-tempo numbers like the opener "Mindrele," there are slow tunes such as "Ancestral Folk Song." Greene, the band's leader and pianist, is an extremely capable composer of both classical and jazz music, and as such, his compositions never sound as if they've gone completely off the rails; that said, however, he has done an extremely good job of taking a free-jazz aesthetic and applying it to Klezmer. Take the extended, blues-soaked beginning of "Moldavian Blues," which contains some great free blowing from singer Marek Balata, clarinetist Perry Robinson and tuba player Larry Fishkind. In a later section, the tune takes on an air of controlled chaos, and the three improvise on an extended melodic line New Orleans-style. Klez-Edge is no Masada- don't get me wrong. Klez Edge is as different from Masada as Greene's other work is from John Zorn's; and any comparison of a group that makes free-Jewish-jazz to Zorn's Masada is bound to come up unfavorable, no matter how good it is. But in spite of that, this is recommended.

Paul Shapiro's new "Essen," with his Ribs and Brisket Revue, does not strive for anything as interesting as Klez Edge's "Ancestors, Mindreles, Nagila Monsters," but that doesn't take away from its inherent fun. A series of (mostly) covers of old Jewish novelty tunes, many of which are about food (titles include "Matzoh Balls" and "Dunkin' Bagel"), "Essen" is clearly light fare. The opener and title track, about a man who desperately wants to sit around and eat, is all over the place; depending on the section, the song is either full-on klezmer, reggae, or some kind of genre that I can only describe as "School-House Rock." The album's other major highlight is "Dunkin' Bagel," which gives Shapiro to show off his formidable talent on the tenor saxophone. The album's major flaw, as you would probably expect, is that you can only listen to so many old Jewish novelty songs about food, and eventually they all begin to sound the same. The choruses of half of the songs involve Matzoh Balls, and a little bit of lyrical variation (or a little bit more of Shapiro's or guest trumpet Steven Bernstein's playing) would have made the album considerably better. That said, it's fun.

Next time you can expect a review of something or other, I promise it will be good. I'm sorry for the long wait between posts, but I am now writing a column for the Scarsdale Inquirer and happened to be in DC over the weekend. That said, though, you can expect a new review sometime in the next few days.

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