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Jewish Journal

Catching Up With Klezmer

by George Robinson

September 7, 2000 | 8:00 pm

Consider these points on the compass - Italy, Australia, the Netherlands, the Balkans, Baltimore, Boston, New York and Toronto. What do they have in common? They are all represented by klezmer recordings this month. (They also include four-fifths of the American League East - doesn't anyone play klezmer in Tampa?) If ever there was any doubt that Jewish music is a universal language, these records put it to rest.

Budowitz: "Wedding Without a Bride" (Buda Musique)

The brilliant European band recreates the experience of an old-world wedding, complete with badkhones. As with their first CD and the Khevrisa set (below), the sound is not what you are expecting. The traditional East European klezmer sound is driven by tsimbl and violin, with brass and clarinet taking a distant back seat. A magnificent piece of historical reconstruction that is also a pleasure to listen and to dance to. Rating: * * * * *

Charm City Klezmer: "Charm City Klezmer" (self-produced)

Great fun from "Balmer," a terrific party record. Bouncy Jewish music with the requisite mix of swing and peppy East European dance tunes. I can't wait for these guys to come north again, because I suspect they're even more fun live. (Available from www.CharmCityKlezmer.com) Rating: * * * *

Cooper, Adrienne and Zalmen Mlotek: "Ghetto Tango" (Traditional Crossroads)

A magnificent but relentlessly disturbing record. Cooper and Mlotek are two of the best that contemporary Yiddish music has to offer, and this collection of songs from the ghettos of the Nazi era is brilliantly performed. As might be expected, every song here is corrosive; even the lullabies carry a powerful accusatory charge. A great record but certainly not a comfortable one. Rating: * * * *

Flying Bulgar Klezmer Band: "Tsirkus" (Traditional Crossroads)

Their most variegated set to date, ranging from chamber jazz to Kurt Weill-inflected lieder. A concept album in the best sense, perhaps not as much fun as some of their other sets, but intellectually stimulating. Rating: * * * * *

Full Metal Klezmer: "Full Metal Klezmer" (Cane Andaluso)

Dark, brooding music from an Italian quartet (alto sax, bass, guitar, drums). Imagine Sonny Sharrock teamed with Jackie McLean playing with the Paradox Trio. A lot more metal than klezmer, but as electric avant-garde jazz it has its moments, especially on the driving, Middle-easternish "Desert." (To order, e-mail airstudio@tiscalinet.it.) Rating: * * * * *

Khevrisa: "European Klezmer Music" (Smithsonian Folkways)

In the same vein as Budowitz and Alicia Svigals's solo album "Fidln," this is an attempt to recreate the sound of 19th century Jewish music. Violin and hammered dulcimer predominate, and the result is musically astute and historically accurate and informed by a certain passion, but it feels a little like someone's dissertation. An important record, but not a fun one. Rating: * * * * *

Klezmer Conservatory Band: "Dance Me to the End of Love" (Rounder)

The usual fine craftsmanship from KCB; you've got to love anyone who can turn out such consistently listenable, danceable, singable music, played with such a high level of musicianship. Except for the title cut (Leonard Cohen is sardonic; Judy Bresler is a wonderful singer, but sardonic she ain't), this is splendid stuff. Closer to the roots than some of the their more recent recordings, a must-buy record. Rating: * * * * *

London, Frank, Lorin Sklamberg and Uri Caine: "Nigunim" (Tzadik)

A masterpiece. Three heavyweights combine forces for a set of Hasidic tunes performed with extraordinary power. Impeccable playing, and Sklamberg's reedy tenor works perfectly here. If you are serious about Jewish music, you should have this record. Rating: * * * * *

Metropolitan Klezmer, featuring Isle of Klezbos: "Mosaic Persuasion" (Rhythm Music)

It sure didn't take long for these guys to emerge as one of the best traditional klezmer bands around. Their first CD served notice that they were a force to be reckoned with, and there's no sophomore jinx. A tighter, more unified sound than ever, with leader Eve Sicular booting things along from her drum kit. A band that can handle any tempo and a wide range of moods with equal mastery. Rating: * * * * *

"The Rough Guide to Klezmer" (Rough Guide)

This CD cannot by any stretch of the imagination be called a historical introduction to klezmer nor, despite the title, does that appear to have been the intention of Simon Broughton, who selected the music and wrote the generally informative notes What this intelligently programmed set offers instead is a sampler of the wide range of the styles that the New Klezmer encompasses, from the traditionalist (Budowitz, Alicia Svigals) to avant-jazz-klezmer (the Klezmatics, Naftule's Dream). Someone looking for an entree into this beguiling music could do a lot worse than this set; the serious klezmer fan, however, will find it pleasant but superfluous. Rating: * * * *

Shawn's Kugel: "Most Precious of Days" (Popover Productions)

Shawn Weaver continues to explore the jazz-klezmer connection in this excellent follow-up to his band's eponymous first set. A wide range of influences at play here, from Russian folk ("Dancing with the Little Ones Medley") to Middle Eastern, but the primary sounds are jazz-inflected, from the big-band swing of "Az Ikh Vel Zogn" to the World Saxophone Quartet stylings of "Scokne." A great party album. Rating: * * * * *

New York-based writer George Robinson is the author of "Essential Judaism: A Complete Guide to Beliefs, Customs and Rituals" (Pocket Books, $27.95).

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