Hasid Jazz?

Orthodox, conservative, or reformed, klezmer's back and marching

"It was a shock to see kids freaking out," the accordionist says afterwards. "We knew people would react, but we didn't know they would react like that. They loved it." While some of the Murrys have had musical training (Noah Sheldon attended the New England Conservatory of Music and even drummed at the Chabad Lubavich in Evanston, Illinois, where he's from), they insist they are not very interested in form per se, concerning themselves more with making the audience move. "Admittedly, we can't play like someone like David Krakauer," says Murrys singer Alex Kranjeck. "The virtuosity thing's been done, and it's called Rush." Experimental klezmer and progressive rock, Kranjeck suggests, both take something seen as essential and raw and make it into something to be listened to seriously. Can a visceral folk music meant for dancing turn into "art" without losing something? Probably not. Then again, as Krakauer says himself, all this experimentation can only mean that the form will continue to evolve. After all, without Rush, there would be no Metallica.

When a form as ethnically loaded as klezmer is used for avant-garde ends, there's inevitably going to be a divide over the oldest issue in folk music: authenticity. Are musicians doing justice to their ancestors' ancestors' klezmer? Does this loyalty even matter? Is the traditional style no longer important, something that should be relegated to compilations of Jewish wedding music of the ages? Klezmer scholar Sapoznik explains that there are now different schools, which break the genre down the way Jewish temples classify themselves: the orthodox movement, which insists on "play[ing] the music as if it never intersected with the twentieth century"; the reform movement, which pushes klezmer's boundaries or fuses with other kinds of music (for instance, the New Orleans Klezmer All-Stars); and the conservative middle-of-the-roaders. Sapoznik is a traditionalist, holding that the reform category is essentially Klezmer for Dummies, and quite simply, does not work.

But when I ask the legendary Andy Statman, who plays mandolin and clarinet in his own Jewish/jazz/bluegrass (jewgrass?) quartet, about Sapoznik's denominational structure, he says, condemningly, "He doesn't know." A well-regarded pioneer of "orthodox" klezmer in the 70's, Statman makes frequent appearances with his band, playing to what he describes as "mostly secular audiences." He has held court weekly at the Charles Street Synagogue for the past few months, leading a weekly jam session, with a simple sign out front announcing "Klezmer Tonight." Andy points out, though, that his current music is not really klezmer. "Only one or two people in Europe can actually play it," he says gravely. "It's a very tragic form, but people think it's 'party music.' " While his band sets up, and the audience takes their seas in pews complete with prayer books, the MC—an older man with a hat, beard, and microphone—announces, "Klezmer is written for the feet, but this," he gestures dramatically at the stage, "this is written for the heart." The band then kicks into a song almost resembling free jazz. Although the familiar tragic clarinet is present, there are also large helpings of electric bass, drums, and keyboards. Andy wears a yarmulke, but his clarinet at times sounds at times like panpipes, not so much Jewish as what we came to recognize as generically "spiritual" sometime around Sgt. Pepper. This vibe segues into Peter Gabriel-style African drums and a mandolin that buzzes like a grasshopper. Meanwhile the bassist starts playing a bluegrass tune that sounds like a kid nagging his mother to buy him a video game system for his bar mitzvah. The effect is about as far from orthodox Jewish music as you can get, but that seems to be the point. If only two or three people really know how to pull off traditional klezmer (which may be technically true: there aren't that many 80-year-old Jewish musicians around), then what is everyone else supposed to do? The answer seems to be, for Statman's band at least, to make music as unpurist as they wanna be. If it's abstract enough, it resists pigeonholing. The music can claim a certain spiritual depth at the same time that it resists existing categories. "You just play it," Andy says, describing his unique arrangements. "It's beyond klezmer." And indeed, the sign out front of the temple has since changed—It now reads "Jewish Mystical Music."

So is this the fate of this once-raucous music of a lost Eastern Europe and the old Lower East Side? Has it gone "beyond klezmer" to live in a far-off universe which sometimes gets flashes from the light of a distant Star of David? Scholars have trouble pinning down our moment in the genre's trajectory, and musicians involved in the movement seem to like klezmer in part because it's difficult to pin down. Like Yiddish, it is a dead language with a vivid cultural history. Klezmer has given rise to a million different definitions, a million different shticky names: Jew-less klezmer (Klezgoyim), teen klezmer (the Klezminors), Ivy League klezmer (The Klez Dispensors), punk klezmer (Yid Vicious). To add to the confusion, The Knitting Factory has recently put out several new Jewish-identified CDs, including The Jewish Alternative Movement: A Guide for the Perplexed—featuring offerings from Krakauer and the Balkan-influenced Paradox Trio—as well as an album of Fiddler on the Roof covers on which Magnetic Fields' Stephin Merritt, morose as ever, imagines he's a dairyman named Tevye imagining he's a rich man.

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