Live at Town Hall
Klezmer music has come a long way in the past quarter century and a group of downtown New York musicians have played a big part in boosting its visibility. Klezmer has been called “Jewish jazz”: It often involves a fast, complex melody line over a steady, aggressive tempo with some improvisation on the theme. The Klezmatics have strong connections to traditional Jewish music and a knack for musical experimentation.
This year marks the group’s silver anniversary, but Live at Town Hall was actually recorded five years ago, with 20 friends and former members lending their voices to the music, resulting in some rich choruses of harmonies on tracks like “Dzhankoye,” which also has a haunting string arrangement. The nearly 12-minute “Dybbuk Suite” moves through an array of moods and textures during its eight movements, with Dolphy-esque bass clarinet honks (from Matt Darriau) dovetailing with rubato vocal interludes and muted trumpet in a Miles Davis vein (from co-founder Frank London). When vocalist Loren Sklamberg sings in English halfway through, it gives a sense of how the music has evolved through generations.
Within months of this performance, the band won a Grammy for Wonder Wheel, an album of previously unrecorded Woody Guthrie songs. Four tunes with the legendary folk singer’s name appear here. “Holy Ground” blends perfectly with their repertoire and the faith that runs through their material. “Hanuka Gelt” and “Lolly Lo” keep the spirit and energy rolling, especially when the latter is banded together in a medley with the original, rollicking “NY Psycho Freylekhs,” but lyrically these Guthrie pieces sounds cutesy and repetitive. “I Ain’t Afraid” takes a piece by political folk singer Holly Near and adds some Yiddish counterpoint to the lyrics, giving it an even stronger message. In moments like this, where the band makes some questionable choices about its music, they play with an authority that pulls off the risks.