Into the phone booth and out with the fire-breathing klezmer

Naftule's Dream performs at Club Helsinki on Sunday, April 27

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., April 24, 2003) – When they feel like stretching out, improvising, or channeling some of the myriad musical influences they bring to the bandstand besides old-time Yiddish dance music, the members of the very traditional klezmer ensemble Shirim go into the nearest phone booth, and like some cartoon superheroes they change costume and come out as the fire-breathing, avant-garde ensemble Naftule’s Dream.

Well, maybe not exactly. But the idea to bifurcate into two bands with the same membership but with two different identities was a solution borne of necessity when, once too often, staid audiences objected to the liberties Shirim’s musicians were taking with klezmer.

“People coming to hear us now know what they’re coming to hear,” said Shirim and Naftule’s Dream founder and leader Glenn Dickson, in a recent interview from his home in Boston. “We don’t get the complaints any more that we did back in the Shirim days playing a mixture of old and new stuff for people who wanted to hear traditional music only.”

What people hear when they go to a concert by Naftule’s Dream is music based in klezmer – the vibrant genre rooted in Eastern European Jewish party music – but given a modern or post-modern twist, acknowledging the musicians’ vast background and command of styles including modern jazz, classical, rock and other influences.

“We evolved out of a klezmer band, and the Jewish and klezmer element is still an important one,” said Dickson, the group’s clarinetist, who leads Naftule’s Dream into Club Helsinki on Sunday, April 27, at 8.

“It manifests itself in many ways -- either through the rhythm base of a particular piece, the melodic material, or the phrasing. But the other elements of the piece might be totally different, even beyond recognition, which is what might confuse people.

“The other thing we’re playing off is non-musical interests having to do with Judaism -- the spiritual side of things that come into play in pieces which might not have any obvious Jewish musical connections to an informal listener.”

Dickson offers as an example his composition “Job,” the title track to the group’s latest studio album, its third released in the “Radical Jewish Culture” series on John Zorn’s Tzadik label.

“For example, ‘Job’ has a vague melodic quality that you could say comes out of Jewish music -- but I wouldn’t know from where. But more importantly, it had to me a certain spirit of struggle or pathos that I would associate with the more spiritual or philosophical end of the spectrum.”

Other efforts by Dickson in that vein have included songs based on themes or images drawn from stories by famed Yiddish author Isaac Bashevis Singer and Franz Kafka.

Perhaps ironically for one dedicated to composing and improvising new music with strong Jewish themes and content, Dickson is one of the few leaders of major klezmer bands who is not Jewish. He says, however, that not being raised as a Jew was no impediment to being drawn into the music when he first began playing it 20 years ago.

“I think to a large degree the same thing attracted me that drew a lot of Jewish people that had lost touch with their religion and culture,” said Dickson. “It’s great music no matter who you are.”

“Since I was so involved with it, it made sense for me to figure it all out for myself, and it definitely has been a worthwhile experience for my life,” said Dickson, whose studies of Jewish culture and religion drew him deep enough into the fold so that at one point he considered undergoing conversion to Judaism.

“It would feel sort of cynical for me to just go in and play the music and not really become involved in it a deeper way,” said Dickson. “Plus my natural tendency is to try to understand what it is I’m doing.”

A graduate of the New England Conservatory of Music, Dickson is a veteran of the rock band Hypnotic Clambake, the Greek band Taxim, and the 19th-century Americana group New Halls Concert and Quadrille Band. Other founding members of Naftule’s Dream include accordionist Michael McLaughlin, who has performed with the Skatalites, performance art group Terra Nova, and rock band Pee Wee Fist, and drummer Eric Rosenthal, who has toured and recorded with Either/Orchestra, Anthony Braxton and Hypnotic Clambake.

Naftule’s Dream current lineup is rounded out by longtime member Tim Gray on tuba, trumpeter Gary Bohan, and guitarist Brandon Seabrook, the last two of whom are members of the Klezmer Conservatory Band.

While Naftule’s Dream’s music is often classified as “avant-garde” or “avant-klezmer,” Dickson emphasizes that it is often melodic and accessible, balancing compositional elements and improvisation.

“It’s a very rich palette we’re drawing from, and hard to describe,” he said. “We had all been playing klezmer music for a long time and the band evolved out from there. What we added was what we’d been associated with for a long time -- the rock sounds, more modern jazz sounds rather than swing, and modern composition.

“I think we do it with a lot of humor and a lot of understandable devices. It’s not all cacophony. If people are patient and want to just listen and enjoy, they can hear a lot of things that are familiar to them in the music.”

Indeed, Naftule’s Dream’s music variously references Seattle grunge (“Yid in Seattle”), speed metal (“Speed Klez”), Steve Reich’s minimalism and New Orleans jazz (both heard in “Job”).

“The more free improvisation that we do hopefully people can listen to and enjoy as purely a sonic experience that’s unique,” said Dickson. “We aren’t totally avant-garde because we use a lot of tightly arranged compositions. There’s a lot of familiar material along with unfamiliar material for people to latch onto.

“Every musician brings in his own influences, and the magic of the band is that it does have a sound of its own,” said Dickson. “When you look at it on paper we’re bringing all these different elements together -- it could be a total disaster. But somehow there is a band sound that has evolved over the years, and it incorporates all these things without seeming unrelated or arbitrary -- it feels very organic. “

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on April 25, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

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