Vibes from the Tribe: Jewish Identity, Music and Jazz
It was always suggested but seldom discussed, at least among the middle class Midwestern Jews I grew up with, that it was best not to draw attentions to our membership in what might be called the Tribe. It was fine to train in such social sciences as anthropology, sociology and ethnomusicology, to write about other peoples’ manners and esthetics—to dig black nationalism in the ’60s, Rastafarianism in the ’70s, neocon hard bop in the ’80s, Cuban elders in the ’90s. But Jewish music was…
Embarrassing? Retrogressive? Déclassé? Like Yiddish? Corny, bilingual, borscht-belt acts, folk-song parodists, or sanctimonious synagogue cantors, organs and choirs. There might be one or two classically trained players teaching in the neighborhood, some dance-band sidemen who day-gigged as instrument repairmen, or weird old codgers redolent of some other world’s entertainment values. At bar mitzvahs and weddings, adults would dance to cha-cha-chas, the kids would twist and shout. Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein were champions of American, not Jewish, music.
Comics could be—must be—Jewish, but musicians, no. That’s why the shiksa Andrews Sisters had the hit singing “Bay Mir Bistu Sheyn,” and Eddie Harris playing alto saxophone on “Exodus.”
That’s all changed, and current albums like clarinetist David Krakauer’s A New Hot One, Naftule’s Dream Live at the Milky Way, several volumes by clarinetist Ben Goldberg’s New Klezmer Trio, brassman Steve Bernstein’s Diaspora Soul, works by the New Orleans Klezmer All-Stars, composers Anthony Coleman, Frank London, Elliott Sharp and John Zorn dispel self-effacement from the get-go. Promoted under such rubrics as “radical Jewish culture” (associated with John Zorn’s Tzadik productions) or “Jewish Alternative Movement” (coined by Michael Dorf’s Knitting Factory Records), music by Jewish musicians (who agree over little else except that yeah, maybe they are Jewish, whatever being Jewish means) is now like rye bread and bagels: You don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy.
The musicians are as diverse as their recordings, yet tend to be articulate, accomplished, ambitious and stubbornly independent individuals. They may be widely read and tolerant, but they’re also quirky and contradictory. Their variety of approaches make them like competitors in a single trade, operating with a live-and-let-live attitude from separate storefronts on the same street.
“I want my music to be klezmer, not some sort of a fusion mishmash,” insists conservatory-educated, jazz-bent clarinetist Krakauer, a hero of Jewish music in New York. Yet his A New Hot One (Label Bleu) opens with “Klezdrix” (as in Hendrix, Jimi), moves on to “Klezmer à la Bechet” (Sidney) and ends with “A Simcha Gone Mad Medley” on which guitarist Mark Stewart quotes surfin’ Dick Dale (a Californian of Lebanese ancestry).
Virtuosic across genres—as was the Ukranian-born, mid-20th century American klezmer clarinet star Dave Tarras—Krakauer has been maintaining a high profile in concerts featuring repertoire that includes the slow movement of Brahms’ “Clarinet Sonata in F minor”; a clarinet sextet by John Musto commissioned for performance at Columbia University’s Miller Theater; his own solo tour-de-force “Rothko on Broadway”; and a suite drawn from A New Hot One, expanding charts for rockin’ quintet to arrangements for 12 instrumentalists in a recently convened New York City chamber orchestra, the Kitchen House Blend. Through it all, Krakauer represents a conservative (yet still unorthodox) wing of “radical” Jewish culture and Jewish “alternative” music.
“I’m the klezmer police,” he maintains. “When we play the bulchar, a traditional dance, I’ll speak right up: ‘No, it doesn’t have the right feel, we’re not going to have them up and dancing!’ ‘No, the beat can’t drive straight through; put more air in the time, so it’s not so thick!’ These metaphors may sound strange, but they help me get people to play the style correctly, which is important because it’s dance music, it has a function. Klezmer, in some senses and to the casual listener, may seem simple. But to master the style, with its ornamentation, its correct way of making the music ebb and flow—it’s a whole thing.”
Krakauer is a native New Yorker, raised musical and nonobservantly Jewish, a childhood friend and collaborator of piano prodigy Anthony Coleman. They gigged together in many jazz, ethnic and classical situations, engaged by them all equally, until Krakauer became fixed on klezmer in 1988 upon joining the Klezmatics, postmodern transgressives in the then historically scrupulous klez revival represented by ensembles such as the Klezmorim, Hankus Netzky’s Klezmer Conservatory Band and Michael Alpert’s Brave Old World.
“There were a few young people playing this music,” Krakauer says, “mostly folkies and record collectors, and a bunch of oldsters in Florida. They thought klezmer would eventually peter out. We were doing it for ourselves, for fun, and for our audiences—small social gatherings, occasional parties and weddings. But then I went with the Klezmatics to Berlin where we played to a thousand screaming fans, and I thought, ‘Wow, this is really something else.’
“It’s no coincidence at all that the klezmer thing exploded with the fall of the Berlin wall, the opening of Eastern Europe,” he continues, taking destiny as both personal and global. “It was a moment in history and in Jewish consciousness that was almost a counterforce to previous racism and anti-Semitism. It led me to feel this is the place I should be. I can write music within klezmer, improvise, do experimental stuff, be an interpreter and a preservationist. Every side of me can be fulfilled within this form. I saw klezmer as my musical home, which it has remained to this day.”
The main stage of Krakauer’s home, which he’s depicted walking past on A New Hot One, is the Lower East side night club Tonic. On Sunday afternoons since December 1998, the Krakauer Quintet has served up the wildest klezmer brunch anywhere in this bare-bones joint, which normally favors rebellious but otherwise uncategorizable music by the likes of Cecil Taylor and Derek Bailey, Vernon Reid, Thurston Moore, William Parker, Satoko Fujii and John Zorn.
Tonic is located the next block over from Orchard Street, the former commercial heart of the Lower East Side. As depicted in movies like Ragtime, it was a teeming open-air market where Eastern European newcomers to America’s awakening modern metropolis engaged in every type of business, humming favorite old-country tunes at a newly rushed pace. Orchard Street was at the foot of the Second Avenue “Yiddish Broadway” theater district, near the Bowery bars in which Irving Berlin was a boy song-plugger, the neighborhood where George and Ira Gershwin were born, among many other midcentury songwriters, comics and entertainers. Tonic being a former kosher-wine warehouse, it’s easy to imagine a group of turn-of-the-century klezmers (which literally means “vessels”—musicians being vessels of song) set up years back amid the huge casks, delighting afternoon shoppers who might be sipping tea or schnapps.
Krakauer would have fit right in: He’s a voluble, generous performer, ripping out dazzling phrases with ardent energy. If he seems rather less like the Apollonian Dave Tarras than his Dionysian klezmer rival Naftule Brandwein, Krakauer is nonetheless (like Brandwein) a superb technician, with telling articulation and measured weight in his notes, however low or high he blows. He can dig deeply in a mournful ballad like “Krakow Doina,” composed for a visit to his ancestral home, but he really thrills on fast tunes. With crackling rock guitar, heaving accordion chords and solid drums behind him, Krakauer at full blast stands rocketlike on tip-toes, hopping and bouncing, then flinging himself to and fro. He may be more restrained in a formal concert hall, but he’s always soulful.
Indeed, his musical passion is the draw for this brunch bunch, a strange mix of people all having a good time. There are usually suburbanites at leisure, often with their children, resting from weekend visits to the scenes of their great-grandparents’ arrivals; they return for deli specialties and bargains on fabrics, clothes, luggage and bric-a-brac. There are black-clad downtowners from adjoining Manhattan neighborhoods sipping eye-openers, and there are up-all-night party people chasing one last gasp. There may be one or two weird old codgers. The food’s basic, but the music’s hip, the listeners as likely to be Latin, black or Asian as Polish, Lithuanian or from Long Island. There are many walk-ins, following the sound. Krakauer’s quintet, and many of the other neo-klezmers even more radical in their reinterpretations, still know how to play a party.
“We used to attract primarily people interested in Jewish music, but now people come to our gigs because they like sonic exploration, intense groove and improvisation,” claims drummer Eric Rosenthal of Naftule’s Dream, a long-running Boston-based sextet that takes off from Eastern European and Jewish-American immigrant styles with compositional specificity and improvisational daring, much as the Art Ensemble of Chicago construes blues, bop, reggae, tent show and church music as “Great Black Music.” “Our crowds may not know what Jewish music is, or that we’re connected to it.” Naftule’s Dream has played Tonic and the Knitting Factory in New York, and since February 2001 has gigged every Tuesday night at Cambridge’s Lizard Lounge (venue of raw-edged local favorites The Fringe, Joe and Mat Maneri, and John Medeski with or without Martin and Wood).
“It’s actually a bit of an issue for us, who we draw,” Rosenthal continues. “They’ll be digging on a freylekhs, a group dance, but they don’t know what it is, just that it sounds cool. And people who come expecting to hear Jewish music ask, ‘What is this?’”
Hidebound klez fans may be puzzled by Naftule’s Dream’s episodes of warped tonality and floating time, freely improvised polyphony and digressive breaks evoking the darkness and chaos that always loomed over Eastern European shtetls (villages). The band has an explanation, complicated though it is: Naftule’s Dream is the alternate face of Shirim, a straightforwardly festive klezmer revival band available for weddings, bar mitzvahs and similar functions. Clarinetist and composer Glenn Dickson, inspired by the Yiddish surrealism of author I.B. Singer, founded Naftule’s Dream as a split-off from Shirim (though comprising all Shirim’s players) in 1993, after they’d recorded an album of his newly conceived pieces entitled Naftule’s Dream (Northeastern).
Since then the two bands have maintained strict segregation of their repertoires, and yet they’re easily confused. Shirim, if upbeat, is also quite innovative: It recorded Klezmer Nutcracker (Newport Classics) and the limited edition The Golden Dreydl, a holiday album klezzing Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite” with a story written and narrated by Ellen Kushner of WGBH radio’s nationally distributed Sound & Spirit program.\ Shirim plans something similar with Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf.”
Meanwhile, Naftule’s Dream has developed remarkable ensemble cohesion and imagination to convey the oppressive ambiance that has inspired surreal tales by fabulists such as Singer, Kafka and Woody Allen. Lead voicings by Dickson, trombonist-composer David Harris, pianist-accordionist-composer Michael McLaughlin and guitarist Pete Fitzpatrick often criss-cross each other at oblique angles or unfold over threatening ensemble riffs (anchored by Rosenthal and tuba player John Manning). Naftule’s Dream is vivid and unsettling to the point of nighmare on its two Tzadik studio albums, Smash, Clap! and Search for the Golden Dreydl, and the new Live at the Milky Way.
Yet, insists Rosenthal: “We are distinctly different from most of the bands on Tzadik, in that Naftule’s Dream is solidly rooted in Jewish music, looking outward at the world.” He, by the way, was raised in Cleveland, where he didn’t hear Jewish music even at bar mitzvahs; Rosenthal drummed in the Cajun rock band Hypnotic Clambake before joining Dickson and company. “A lot of the other radical Jewish culture bands are led by musicians who are Jewish and who decided to look inwards at that about themselves. We’re in the tradition of traveling musicians who pick up different influences, and evolve. Living musicians tend to want to write original music, tapping all the influences we’re aware of, so that’s what we do. But we’re klezmers who go out, not out musicians who go klezmer.
“We’ve discovered an audience, some of the same folks who like out-jazz and the jam bands, too,” he says. “But the jam bands play modal vamps, on and on; we have compositions and melody lines that get transformed. We’re not for dancing and grooving, though we do that; we’re for people who want to listen to music. Our music doesn’t let up even in its transitions. Our performances are dynamic. We can go in many directions.
“We’re improvisers, unafraid to improvise—but the composing by Glenn, Dave and Michael is among our strengths, too. We’re not stylists; we don’t present a pastiche of salsa and freilach, say, or New Orleans rhythms and Jewish melodies. Our band has its own sound, which, early on, was a mess. By now we’ve learned to improvise together, in the context of our compositions, making use of all our overlapping voices and also our ability to slam into a heavy groove.
“I love doing the functions with Shirim, fulfilling the 3,000-year-old traditions of what musicians are supposed to do. No one in the band is observant,” Rosenthal says of the half Jewish, half gentile sextet, “but our experience as Shirim, a solid, working klezmer band, informs all the avant and outside stuff we get into. We have that klezmer sound, esthetic and background. Does that make us a portal into Jewish music? We embrace all kinds of creative music, as a Jewish music band looking out. But for others, we’re a portal for looking in.”
Rosenthal accurately cites one tension in music about Judaism, a polarity between outrageous confrontation and subtle reflection, engaging an audience and fulfilling one’s personal artistry. The alternatives span a spectrum: Compare the balls-out New Orleans Klezmer All-Stars with Anthony Coleman’s conceptually neurotic Selfhaters Orchestra; trumpeter Frank London’s in-your-face Jews With Horns and the devastating detail of guitarist Elliott Sharp and Palestinian poet Ronny Someck’s Revenge of the Stuttering Child; the bold and seething arrangements of Naftule’s Dream with the Talmudic abstractions of Bay Area-based clarinetist Ben Goldberg’s New Klezmer Trio. On the albums Masks and Faces (1990), Melt Zonk Rewire (1995) and Short for Something (2000), all on Tzadik, Goldberg, bassist Dan Seamans and drummer Kenny Wollesen perform as a de- and reconstructionist study group, breaking down traditional klezmer’s gestures and essences, piecing them back together with cracks and gaps showing as if they were pottery shards or bits of memory.
“My mother played clarinet,” Goldberg recollects the genesis of his interest; captivated by the instrument, he always intended to pursue it. “Then the luckiest thing happened when I was in third or fourth grade,” he says without irony. “The greatest clarinetist in the world had the first chair in my school band and I was second. He was so good, I had to do some work. I got busy practicing. By the eighth grade,” at age 13, when a Jewish boy is regarded as a child no longer, but a man, “I’d put in so many hours—but I couldn’t get into jazz band, until I picked up the alto sax.
“On clarinet I played classical music, sonatas, concertos, the usual fare. I was more interested in the exercises than the repertoire. The classical world wasn’t for me; I never connected with the phrasing. But I loved technical exercises, chordal and melodic things I could move around when I was playing jazz.”
Goldberg received a degree in music from University of California Santa Cruz, and eventually a masters in composition from Oakland’s Mills College. “That’s been useful,” he allows, “and was fun, but as with probably any institutional education, what I learned seemed tangential to my desire to play music, write music and get right to the center of music.”
His teacher Rosario Mazzeo, “one of the main clarinet teachers of the century,” had instilled in him the notion that “the music came through the clarinet, both as a way of dealing with the problems of the instrument and also as if the instrument could reveal things. I wanted my instrument to be the voice,” Goldberg says. “I was very struck by Steve Lacy, who devoted himself to the soprano saxophone to the point where the instrument itself opened up a whole world of music. He was my role model.”
During college Goldberg was invited to join a klezmer band, and not knowing the music he had to dig up some records. “There was one compilation on Arhoolie with tracks by Tarras, by Brandwein, by Abe Schwartz. Naftule Brandwein, he played some really superb music in a voice that cut through everything. I’d listen to it at slow speed to figure out how he articulated the ornaments. He wasn’t lugubrious, he was to the point; he was forceful and stated things brazenly. And he was a motherf’r on clarinet. Some of his stuff is really tricky, and he played it with style.”
Goldberg takes a deep breath and gets down to cases. “But Brandwein is not the tradition—he’s the guy who turned the tradition all upside down. He’s not reverential about some klezmer tradition, because that’s not what klezmer is about. It’s about messing it up and changing it, impressing everybody. It’s never about reverence, about worshipping Duke Ellington and the jazz tradition, either, because Duke Ellington didn’t worship the jazz tradition. He was composing the most modern music in the world, when it came out. Brandwein, too. Which led me to wonder about my own role in this.”
Traditional klezmer appealed to Goldberg for its reliance on the clarinet, and after half a dozen years studying it, he’d joined the revivalist Klezmorim. “They were serious about the style,” he recalls. “If they could sound just like the old record, they were happy. ‘It’s not working,’ they used to complain, ‘it sounds too much like us!’
“Well, I was playing klezmer but living in the modern world, too, playing my own compositions and improvising with friends like Kenny Wollesen. It became a problem. Why would I want to get up on stage and recreate a Brandwein record? What was the point? I wrote a manifesto to the Klezmorim, saying ‘You can listen to Bechet and to Coltrane, hear an obvious link, but something evolved. Maybe we could listen to Brandwein and try to imagine if that sound had continued to be updated by people, where would it be today?’ They were completely uninterested.
“But I had to do something with what I thought existed inside the tradition of so-called ‘klezmer.’ Not take klezmer and mix it with free jazz, though I realized that what I had in mind could be described that way. It was in my mind that all the elements are here, in klezmer. Fantastic melodies, and strange relationships to harmonies, style, vocabulary, craziness.”
One day in the late ’80s, inviting Wollesen and Dan Seamans to “come over and play some klezmer tunes we all knew, and see what happens,” Goldberg was hit by lightning. “The whole thing exploded!” he says, still in awe. “For me, this was it. I had it under my fingers, I could play it and express it the way I felt it. I don’t know if I had played music before that got to those levels, both the high and also the deeper, darker, more anguished parts of myself. It was really important to me.” The New Klezmer Trio was born.
“Of course, playing such music was not economically feasible,” Goldberg rues. “We tried it in folk-music clubs but it was weird, and in Jewish community centers, which was really weird. So we rehearsed all the time, and made [Masks and Faces],” originally for reedist Vinny Golia’s Nine Winds label, reissued on Tzadik.
From the outset, Goldberg knew his music drew from a mixed bag. “What’s referred to as klezmer today includes Greek melodies, Turkish rhythms, all sorts of regional influences—a musicologist could discuss it at length. Our American idea of klezmer was invented in the 1970s, when the recordings were rediscovered, people learned the songs, pulled the repertoire together and a certain stylization and homogeneity developed. Now we think klezmer refers to something we know, but it’s actually compiled from scraps that didn’t necessarily have much to do with how it really was.”
Also, he struggled to keep his sense of church and state separate. “I never wanted to ally anything I did with some idea of Jewish spirituality,” he says. “It doesn’t seem right. That’s not why I do it.” Of his background, Goldberg says, “I wasn’t raised especially observant, maybe right in the middle. We celebrated shabbos [Friday night-Saturday sabbath], had a seder [feast during Passover], went to High Holy Days [New Year’s and Day of Atonement] services, didn’t eat pork. But that doesn’t mean we were kosher.
“I have a secular cultural orientation. My sense of Judaism is tribal. I’m a Jew because my parents are Jews; that’s who I am, and for me, as a musician, it’s very important. When you’re dealing with art, trying to make something that means something, you’re constantly wondering about who you are. It’s a complicated question for everybody. You can’t stop at definitions of yourself that fall short of the fundamental realities, though the things that feel fundamental are probably illusions, too.”
That sounds Zen. Here’s the paradox:
“When I think about being a Jew,” says Goldberg, “I don’t want it to be defined by rabbinical tradition. Because I don’t know anything about that; I didn’t grow up that way. I want to just accept the basic fact of it, like saying, ‘Jewish, that’s the kind of human being I am.’”
That acknowledgement was reinforced for him at the Radical Jewish Culture Festival curated by John Zorn in Munich in 1992, involving Krakauer, Laurie Anderson, Steven Bernstein, Anthony Coleman, Shelley Hirsch, The Klezmatics, Gary Lucas, John and Evan Lurie of the Lounge Lizards, Roy Nathanson of The Jazz Passengers, Marc Ribot, Elliott Sharp and many others of New York’s downtown crowd. “The musicians were Jewish, but not Jews dealing with particular kinds of sounds identified with Jews,” Goldberg says. “The way Zorn set up this program was brilliant. Without saying as much, it made the point that Jewish music is any music made by Jews. At the time, that message was very refreshing.
“The other message, that the music is related to the religion, was very exciting at first. I’d get invited to a synagogue to perform, and feel like ‘Oh, I’m reconnecting.’ But I’ve learned that for me, music has to be music, and music is a religion all by itself. I don’t want music to be subservient to religion, and I don’t want Judaism mixed up in my music as a religion. Tzadik’s use of the Jewish star as a marketing device, the notion of radical Jewish culture as a trademark—this adds another level of self-consciousness to the whole enterprise that I’m not sure is useful.” Struck by such doubts, Goldberg reports he disbanded the New Klezmer Trio in 1995 to work with guitarist John Schott in Junk Genius and other faith-neutral ensembles.
“Oh, I wrote the music and got the New Klezmer Trio together to make Short for Something last year, but that’s it,” he emphasizes. “I’m not going to say ‘klezmer’ any more, or ‘Jewish.’ It’s just music. I can live with that. I still want to write my version of what klezmer has become. I’m crazy about klezmer music, and I can’t get enough of that sound. I’ve spent years with it and it’s a part of me, whether because I’m Jewish or because I’m attracted to the pain in that music, I can’t say. I always fall for music that’s crying, screaming and weeping. It gets to me. And here it is: Jewish.
“Klezmer gave me a way to play the blues without playing the blues. Sure, I’d play the blues sometimes, but there was always that understanding it’s from somebody else’s culture. And there’s the heart of it for me: here was music that was by definition my culture, and it had the blues. I could scream and weep and gnash my teeth—everything I needed to do for a completely cleansing experience, without asking any more if it was culturally appropriate. It was Jewish, and it was right to the point.
“The New Klezmer Trio gave me a breakthrough: After years of dealing with klezmer’s bedrock vocabulary and with a lot of material I continue to study regarding how melodies and harmony work—in Short for Something I don’t think you’ll hear too much that shouts ‘Hey, klezmer music!’ But everything on that record is where I have come to with that material. It all originated as klezmer.”
From such sources, Goldberg’s trio music levitates. His clarinet phrases are as light, unpredictable and incisive as those of Lester Young, Pee Wee Russell or Jimmy Giuffre. Seamans is a sturdy tether, while Wolleson swings loosely, with off-beat accents. The New Klezmer Trio’s sound is intensely collaborative, equilateral but never static. It leads one to personal and metaphysical speculations. The dancing’s in your head.
Lest such intellectualism seem essential to radical Jewish culture, though, find a copy of Steven Bernstein’s Tzadik masterpiece Diaspora Soul. That album is sly, yes, and arguably subversive, maybe even radical. It is undeniably Jewish, with a repertoire of songs taught in even the most assimilationist Hebrew schools. But Bernstein vaults the mind-body divide by underscoring indelible Hebraic motifs with irresistible swamp-rock/second-line rhythms out of New Orleans. His vision is an alternative, all right, marrying the gutsy lyricism of Crescent City brassmen and R&B with a cosmopolitan wit at once absurdist and sentimental.
“This is what people expect from me,” he protests. “They come to Sex Mob gigs expecting a wild time,” he says of his best-known band. (Bernstein’s also worked for seven years with the Luries’ Lounge Lizards, grew up in Peter Apfelbaum’s Hieroglyphics Ensemble and arranged the all-star pseudo-jam session Robert Altman featured in his film Kansas City). “Outrageousness is part of the package, and gets people lined around the block at midnight. That’s part of being Jewish: a Lenny Bruce thing, a Mel Brooks thing, my thing. My character, who I am, is not reticent—it’s Jewish. Not religiously, but socially. And your music is who you are.”
Raised in Berkeley, Calif., Bernstein’s early musical experiences included hearing cantors, but his horn teachers were Italian and Irish, and his heroes Lester Bowie, Rex Stewart and Don Cherry. “If you come up trying to learn jazz, you try to listen to Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard,” he says. “I don’t play Jewish music; I play trumpet. I play music, and Diaspora Soul was a job, an assignment Zorn gave me to make a Jewish record. I wasn’t going to make a bullshit record, especially if I wasn’t going to make any money on it, so I went through a bunch of ideas. It took me three years to come up with something I liked. Even Zorn said, ‘This isn’t a record you want to make,’ and I’d say, ‘You’re right.’”
Bernstein’s eventual inspiration came from listening to New Orleans marching bands, reading about that city’s established musical families, thinking about how jazz evolved: “And how not all jazz came from the marching bands. What came from the marching bands is Little Richard! Maybe it’s blasphemy to say this, but after Louis Armstrong left New Orleans for King Oliver in Chicago, rock ’n’ roll is what came from the musicians who stayed behind.
“I was also thinking of the connection in all this music to how horns play a rhythmic role, and I was playing weddings on the weekend where I’d mess with melodies, play them in flat keys when they’re usually in sharp keys, or real fast or stretched out slow, or with a plunger. I began to hear how they fit over New Orleans rhythms, with the trumpet and clarinet winding ’round. I went for the link between expressive New Orleans trumpet playing and cantorial singing, and stirred in a boogaloo-Latin music-New Orleans-cha-cha thing, too, that came out of conga player Willie Bobo’s music director, Melvin Lastie from New Orleans.”
Bernstein arranged songs associated with Chanukah, Passover and Purim for an ensemble modeled on New Orleans trumpeter-arranger Dave Bartholomew’s charts for Little Richard and Fats Domino. He plotted his heartfelt, sometimes schmaltzy trumpet as the main voice supported by a four-sax section (Apfelbaum, Michael Blake and Paul Shapiro on tenors, Briggan Krauss on bari), and a beguiling variety of slinky keyboard parts (played by Brian Mitchell on organ and Wurlitzer electric). Tony Scherr plays upright bass. There’s firm hand-drumming by E. J. Rodriguez and Robert Rodriguez, but no traps.
“People say about Diaspora Soul, ‘I didn’t know Jewish music could be so sexy.’ It’s usually played fast and has a beat, but not with rhythms that make me comfortable. The rhythms on Diaspora Soul make me comfortable: They’re what I played for years in Peter Apfelbaum’s Hieroglyphic Ensembles, essentially African and Afro-Cuban, and the tempos of reggae, which are even slower.
“Also people say, ‘These are great songs.’ That shows how universal the music is. ‘Roumania, Roumania,’ ‘Let My People Go,’ ‘Rock of Ages.’ They’re not great songs, they’re great melodies.
“And people like these melodies because they’re their melodies, as they are mine. From deep down, way back. I personally love having a Jewish star on my records. Otherwise the pictures are naked girls or something to do with reefer songs. What other record have I made that I can give to my grandma? Which of my other records can my kids take to school? For me, Diaspora Soul has been a blessing.
“I think of huggin’ and kissin’ and lots of good food and hanging out as Jewish,” Bernstein says. “I tried to make a record that would invite that. You can have sex, have a big pastrami sandwich with 10 pickles and a Cel-Ray or creme soda, dance with your aunt, whatever. I wanted to get that joyous part of Judaism that is about celebration, not self-hating. I’m a self-lover. Did you notice, I found this cabalistic concentric circle? The inner circle is sexual love, speech, sleep and mirth. That, to me, is Jewish.” As printed in Diaspora Soul’s tray inset, the mystic outer circle is made up of symbols for taste, movement, sight, anger, smell, work, hearing and imagination.
All that imagery, these terms, these circles of musicians and their music call to mind one who’s produced so much determinedly radical music in the past 25 years as to have enormous effect on the avant-garde internationally. John Zorn has not been alone in his devotion to exploration, originality and bracing iconoclasm, but he seems to have collaborated with, encouraged and/or supported a majority of the others on the same quest. On his own, he’s composed ingenious game works, brilliant montages and effective film scores. As a guerrilla improviser on alto sax, he’s fired up innumerable events. His rip-roaring Masada quartet (co-starring trumpeter Dave Douglas) launches hard jazz from Judaic themes.
Zorn lives modestly and has evidently reinvested a significant portion of his income from making music into making more music. His sibling Tzadik and Avant labels consistently release gems. Zorn’s own most recent Tzadik releases are a game piece, Xu Feng, and his soundtrack for a film about homosexual Brooklyn Hasidim, Trembling Before G-d. His colleagues, without exception, celebrate his contributions; he has helped a golden age of radical Jewish musical culture dawn.
But before praising Zorn any further, consider the meaning of “tzadik” itself. As Leo Rosten writes in The Joys of Yiddish, a tzadik is a “most righteous man” who instructs by modest example; in legend, they were unknown and acted anonymously in emergencies, then quickly disappeared.
“The idea of doing good secretly, without reward, fleeing from any recognition or gratitude, held great fascination for the men of the Talmud,” Rosten explains. “The less publicly a good deed is done, the more admirable it is. Heaven will know…God will remember…”
So rather than enshrine anyone, return to Tonic. One night in March, Elliott Sharp was on stage with his Terraplane trio, celebrating his 50th birthday by picking blistering blues slide guitar in a style rooted in the Mississippi delta. As Sharp plays the blues, though, he drives it through postwar Chicago, the ’60s British invasion, psychedelic jazz-rock fusions and purposeful late 20th-century iconoclasm to a destination of his own design.
Sharp lives in the same apartment building as Zorn, and has established himself in the international avant-garde with comparable distinction through related but unique concerns and investigations. He has often performed in Zorn’s ensembles, and has worked with many musicians heard on Tzadik.
Revenge of the Stuttering Child\, Sharp’s Tzadik album, presents Ronny Someck’s texts about the enduring conflicts between Jewish and Arab Semites with pristine clarity in a scary hush. Sharp’s array of guitars, reed instruments and computer processing are placed amid sparse arrangements for piano, cello, accordion, percussion and Someck’s readings, which are marvelously effective though mostly in Hebrew. Sharp’s settings are dreamscapes of a harsh, parched Middle East, conjured with extraordinary lyrcism-high contrast wo the crunch and swagger purveyed on Blues for Next (Knitting Factory), Sharp’s two-CD breakout with his hard-core, urban-and-blueish band Terraplane (plus guest vocalists Dean Bowman and Eric Mingus, and Hubert Sumlin, Howlin’ Wolf’s electric guitarist).
Standing at Tonic’s bar after the set, less in formal interview than causual conversation , Sharp says, “I don’t believe in the indentification of one’s Judaism in music at all. Klezmer as it’s being performed now is a melange of 17th century Middle European forms, with a lot of the interesting edges, irregular rhythmic things that you hear in musics from the Balkans, for instance, smoothed out. The very idea that we’d agree on anything, as Jews, or musicians, or artists on some radical fringe! It’s brilliant marketing, yes, wrapping the CDs in Jewish stars and gold and black cover designs and all that. But I don’t think Tzadik really represents a radical Jewish movement, or any one thing.
“If it does, I say let’s have equal time for atheists.” Is he just being contrary? “Think of it in political terms: I’m as against being governed by Joseph Lieberman as I am against being governed by John Ashcroft, because I don’t want religious fanaticism or even genuine righteousness foisted upon me in the name of anything.
That’s the spirit-not of denial of one’s religion or identity, but of the right to private possesssion and practice of it. Each member of the Tribe expects to be responsible for his or her own understanding and expression of tradition, precedent, individuality and community. To protect each person’s viability, offering broad latitude within a semblance of group coherence, is the goal.
In that, Judaism is not unlike jazz. The players tell their stories, sing their songs and in the very process of being themselves, together, summon a holy, joyful noise.
Originally published in September 2001