Michael Stone has
An Encounter with David Krakauer
The release of New York clarinetist David Krakauer's latest klezmer title, The Twelve Tribes, presented the opportunity to check up on his career, and on his vision for klezmer's future. Krakauer's philosophy remains to retain "the energy of the old stuff, Naftule Brandwein, Dave Tarras, that sort of kick-ass energy, that passion and rawness," but to carry it forward into the present. He is a recognized leader in striving "to keep klezmer out of the museum, to write new klezmer pieces and to improvise on older forms in a way that is informed by the world around us today."
Krakauer's perspective reflects his personal history as a key member of the Klezmatics, whom he joined in 1988 for their "upfront Jewish pride message and rock-and-roll attitude." He summarizes his time with the band:
"After I played klezmer for several months, the Klezmatics heard about me, and I became a member. I'm extremely proud of the work I did with them. I believe that the album Rhythm and Jews is probably one of the first, incredibly important records of the second klezmer revival, and that it remains a very important piece of work. We had a lot of adventures and a lot of fun, and I'm still very friendly with everybody in the band. And I am still very partial to the projects of my former Klezmatics colleagues, including [trumpeter] Frank London, [violinist] Alicia Svigals and [singer] Lorin Sklamberg. Of course, working with them definitely helped me move on, both to lead my own group and to write new klezmer music."
Since 1996, Krakauer has kept busy with a variety of projects, including sitting in with the remarkable Algerian Sephardic pianist Maurice El Medioni (Café Oran, Piranha), and guiding his own band, Klezmer Madness! But people who know only his klezmer work may be surprised to learn that Krakauer did not actually grow up with the music. In his family, only his grandparents spoke Yiddish, and his musical interests, formed in the 1960s and 1970s, centered on jazz, rock and classical. While fascinated with jazz, he turned away "for fear of becoming merely a pale copy of Sidney Bechet or Buddy DeFranco," and set his sights on a classical career. It was not without reluctance, however, as Krakauer relates: "I've always been very inspired by the great jazz musicians, Coleman Hawkins, John Coltrane, Louis Armstrong, and so on. James Brown and Trouble Funk are also big influences."
In any case, his musical openness informs a versatility that is evident in an impressive roster of collaborations: Itzhak Perlman, John Cage, John Zorn, Elliott Sharp, the Brooklyn Philharmonic, the New Haven Symphony, the Radio Orchestra of Berlin, Tokyo String Quartet, Kronos Quartet, Aspen Wind Quintet, Eroica Trio, Lark Quartet, Mendelssohn String Quartet, Empire Brass Quintet and the Martha Graham Ballet. In addition, he has private students, and teaches at the Manhattan School of Music and the Mannes College of Music. Of particular note is his association with John Zorn, as Krakauer recounts:
"I first started working with John on his Kristallnacht project in 1992. When we brought that to Munich, it was the first time that the term 'Radical Jewish Culture' was used. Later on, John very generously supported me, backing the first two albums under my own name on his Tzadik label. In fact, my first recording, Klezmer Madness!, to my best recollection, was the first in the Tzadik Radical Jewish Culture Series."
Krakauer's two latest Klezmer Madness! releases (by the French jazz house, Label Bleu) confirm the breadth and inspiration of his vision. A New Hot One (2001) won the French Diapason d'Or prize, and has been critically hailed in Europe. Krakauer says of his approach, "The trick is to stay within the klezmer style while at the same time to always moving forward," and "never forgetting that klezmer is dance music."
The shape his inspiration has taken can be heard in "Klezmer à la Bechet." Excerpted on A New Hot One from a longer suite, it imagines a meeting between two very different clarinetists newly arrived in 1920s New York, Brandwein and Bechet. For Krakauer, the work also serves as an allegory of Jews and African Americans coming together in a hybrid cultural realm. Therein, Krakauer takes a klezmer form, the terkisher, and "adds a kind of a New Orleans groove to pay homage to Sidney Bechet in a klezmer style." But this is not to suggest that jazz and klezmer are two sides of the same coin, as Krakauer explains:
"There is a little bit of a myth about klezmer being a kind of Jewish jazz. Klezmer is Eastern European Jewish folk music, and jazz is a unique creation from African American culture. I think that the mixtures or the crosscurrents between klezmer and jazz really came a lot later, in the late 1930s, and even then as a kind of curiosity. Basically, I think it's very important to understand these two types of music as being very separate, distinct styles. However, today I believe that klezmer as well as many other kinds of world music are creating a new branch of jazz and improvised music. But I would say that this is a relatively recent phenomenon."
Another piece maps the connections between klezmer and African American popular music, but in dramatically distinct fashion. On "Klezdrix," which opens A New Hot One, Krakauer engages in a wailing match with guitarist Mark Stewart (who has backed Anthony Braxton, Dylan, Paul McCartney and Paul Simon). He tosses off some amazing extended clarinet solos, exploiting his circular breathing technique. He calls the tune " a klezmer tribute to Jimi Hendrix. Need I say any more?" In his conception, using the electric guitar in klezmer "establishes a certain kind of modernity in the music," with a nod to his personal "folkloric" roots in American pop culture. (Likewise, Krakauer calls the clarinet "the electric guitar of klezmer music.")
Given the explicit pop references in his music, I asked about another Krakauer composition, "Television Frailachs," from The Twelve Tribes. I shared my own associations: a pulsing Betty Boop cartoon track, an odd American pop-culture sonic hash, or a sidelong tribute to Slim Gaillard. Krakauer replies:
"It is an attempt to answer the question, 'What is my own folklore'? I didn't grow up with klezmer music, or with an indigenous folk music of my own, so I have to say that my folk music was early 1960s television themes. When I began to think about this, I realized that tunes like the Munsters theme and the Twilight Zone made perfect klezmer tunes, thus the 'Television Frailachs'."
But at the heart of Krakauer's music resides his klezmer sensibility. The title track of A New Hot One plays off a traditional tune, "Das Hayser Bulgar" (The Hot Bulgar), and turns it inside out. "Krakow Doina" pays homage to his Polish roots, as does "Love Song to Lemberg/Lvov," his grandfather's home town, which Krakauer first visited when the Soviet Union was going down. He reports being "struck by the contrast of beautiful Austro-Hungarian architecture in the midst of a depressing Soviet city," and dismayed at his Russian guide's laughter when he asked about seeing the old synagogue. Krakauer describes his own discovery of klezmer as realizing it was "the sound of my grandparents speaking." On "Love Song" his howling clarinet, against a free-form breakout between accordion, electric guitar, bass and drums, punctuates a stately old Yiddish waltz, in a searing, white-hot musical Kaddish to the ghosts of the Holocaust.
Krakauer performs throughout Europe and travels often to Poland (where he teaches klezmer workshops to mostly non-Jewish Polish musicians). I asked how he understands klezmer's remarkable popularity in places like Germany, Poland and Hungary, given the darker side of twentieth-century European history. As Krakauer sees it, recording and playing in Europe is critically important: "Because the Holocaust eradicated most of Eastern European Jewish culture, klezmer music in America exists as a precious and important vestige of a vanished world." He elaborates :
"Many people ask, 'How can a Jewish person go and play in Germany?', for example. My response is that I always find the experience extremely positive. First of all, the audience is generally younger people who had absolutely nothing to do with the atrocities of the Holocaust. To call playing klezmer in Germany a kind of guilt cleansing I believe is an oversimplification. I think that there is a desire in Europe to understand Jewish culture because before the war it was a very vibrant part of European culture. Once the Berlin Wall came down people began to realize that there was this empty place, so going and doing work on Yiddish culture in Europe fills up that empty place. Also, I believe that as Europe struggles with multi-culturalism, the very fact that someone comes to Europe and plays Jewish music is, in and of itself, a kind of political statement that provides a counterbalance to racism and hatred."
Seeking to keep klezmer a living, evolving tradition, Krakauer continues to do yeoman work in the United States and abroad, carrying the music to as many different constituencies as possible. The Twelve Tribes exemplifies this. "The Kozatzke/ Der Ziser" is based on a traditional Jewish wedding song, but it moves seamlessly into another tune drawn from a Brandwein recording. "The Gypsy Bulgar," based on an old side by cymbalom master Joseph Moskowitz, begins with a traditional clarinet-accordion interplay and a light-fingered electric guitar suggestive of a Macedonian balalaika. But there is a darker undertone, and things rupture into a percussive free-form jazz moment wherein Kevin O'Neil's electric guitar rolls up and down the scale, while Will Holshouser's accordion trills in clear intimation of the clarinet.
Kevin Norton's precision drumming to open "Chusen Kale Mazel Tov" frames Krakauer's chortling reworking of the classic tune that closes the Jewish wedding ceremony. At the defining moment the glass is broken, a symbolic act of destruction that marks a bittersweet departure and the assumption of a new life status; by extension, the tune references the temple's destruction, while forwarding the seeds of hope for its ultimate reconstruction.
His sound palette and choice of musicians may strike the more traditionally minded as jarring, but it's a matter of knowing where Krakauer is coming from. Assessing the band's current lineup he says, "Drummer Kevin Norton is one of the great jazz drummers; he plays with Anthony Braxton and leads his own band. Guitarist Kevin O'Neil is a great musician, composer and bandleader who also has recorded with Braxton. Accordionist Will Holshouser is a wonderful composer-arranger in his own right. Guitarist Roger Kleier is superb sound sculptor, and one of the important musicians in the downtown scene. Nicki Parrott plays with everyone from Alicia Svigals to Les Paul, and is one of the great bass players."
It takes an eclectic group like this one to produce something like "Queen of the Midnight Fax" and sustain a klezmer feel. They lay out the tentative configuration sounds of a reticent electronic device, building a certain apprehension that fuses traditional doina (Romanian shepherd's song) and terkisher ("Turkish") forms in an approximation of the give-and-take joys and tensions of a familiar relationship grounded in mutual affection.
At the album's core is "The New Year After...," which Krakauer was moved to compose during Rosh Hashanah, precisely one week after the attacks on New York and Washington. Krakauer plays the shofar (the ceremonial ram's horn used during important religious services) and clarinet, and sings in a weary, edgy wordless meditation (nign) upon the overwhelming tragedy of the moment. He describes the tune's moment of inspiration:
"When the shofar was sounded in the synagogue, my knees went weak and I nearly collapsed from grief. Being in that place, feeling both the individual grief of all the people in the synagogue, plus the collective grief of everyone in the world was extremely powerful. I thought about a lone human being trying to communicate with the cosmos with a simple ram's horn. This is what inspired the 'New Year After'."
"Bulgar" comes from the Dave Tarras repertoire, with the accordion out front, over a throbbing fuzz-tone guitar introduction and a vaporous warbling fit as the clarinet launches into the evocative main theme. One of the sweetest tunes is a klezmer standard and Krakauer favorite, "Der Gasn Nign," whose crying, measured pace captures all the bittersweet ecstasy and existential angst of the Jewish Weltanschauung.
Krakauer wrote "Table Pounding" as a musical counterpoint to "beating on the table while singing Hassidic nigunim (chants without words). When you really get going with a lot of people around the table, it can seem like everyone is trying to hold the table down while it tries to levitate into the air." A percussive thudding and a slow, mournfully resonant clarinet and fuzz-tone guitar reference the hypnotic state of ecstasy that the practice can produce.
A young Toronto DJ, Socalled, steps forward as a guest on "As If," the album-closing duet. A product of the DJ's sampling of Krakauer's music, the collaboration testifies to their sharing "the same urgent need to propel forward the heritage." Krakauer elaborates:
"Socalled has put out an amazing piece of work called 'The Hip-Hop Seder'. I think this is an important new direction that klezmer music is about to follow. Socalled, the English Klezmer violinist Sophie Solomon, Michael Alpert and I are also working on a new project, a kind of hip-hop version of a traditional Jewish wedding."
Purists may cringe, but earlier generations surely had their own doomsayers who fretted then about what Brandwein, Tarras and the rest were "doing to klezmer." And lest anyone think that he eschews the music's roots, Krakauer says, " The people working on historical klezmer performance — Zev Feldman, Deborah Strauss, Jeff Warschauer and so forth — also are doing great work. Alan Bern is another major force who I respect a lot."
Regarding klezmer's possible futures, I asked about the identifying cultural characteristics of "Tribe Number Thirteen" (the album's leadoff track). What sort of people are they, where are they headed musically? Krakauer elaborates, "Perhaps 'Tribe Number Thirteen' represents the new directions where we can head with klezmer music. The song is a mix of klezmer dance music (bulgar), Trouble Funk, and a twelve-bar blues." An offspring of the original twelve Hebrew tribes, the thirteenth seems dedicated to inventing the immediate future of the music, and as Krakauer would have it, "The thirteenth tribe has a singing future."
David Krakauer's Klezmer Madness!
Maurice El Médioni
Visit the Krakauer web site
Some of David Krakauer's recordings are available at cdRoots