Dispensing klezmer past and future
by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., February 12, 2004) -- In the mid- to late-1990s, a strange thing began to happen on college campuses across the land. Alongside marching bands, symphony orchestras, jazz combos and rock groups, klezmer ensembles began to sprout like mushrooms. By the end of the century, klezmer had a formal or informal presence on campuses including Yale, Brown, Columbia, the University of Virginia, and SUNY-Buffalo.

In 1998, a few students from the Princeton University Jazz Ensemble got together to play klezmer. The Klez Dispensers began as the officially-sanctioned, university klezmer band, but after the musicians graduated, they became an independent group, replaced at Princeton by the Klezmocrats.

On their second CD, “The New Jersey Freylekhs,” the Klez Dispensers mine a unique, nearly forgotten style of klezmer. Picking up where the music left off in the 1950s, before it was all but steamrollered by mainstream American popular music in the postwar rush to assimilation, the group reimagines what would have happened to the classic-sounding freylekhs and bulgars if instead of going dormant the music continued evolving along the lines of the post-Swing Era experiments of clarinet great Dave Tarras and his son-in-law, saxophonist Sam Musiker.

On the landmark but grossly neglected 1955 album, “Tanz,” Musiker, who had played with Gene Krupa’s swing band, tried to update his father-in-law’s sound to reflect some of the harmonic and stylistic innovations of post-Swing, small-ensemble bebop. On earlier klezmer recordings, horns and clarinets tended to double each other’s melodies in the same way that Old World violins would echo each other one octave apart or simply play rhythmic, pedal-point notes. Musiker introduced the concept of playing sophisticated ascending and descending harmony lines around the lead melody player in klezmer.

Nowadays, when you listen to “Tanz,” it sounds strikingly modern, in part because many of the early klezmer revivalists of the 1970s and ‘80s went back further in time and recapitulated the more primitive ways of playing and arranging klezmer. Even the more experimentally-oriented of the current crop of klezmorim, including those who add rock, jazz and other influences to the mix, tend to build their work upon more straightforward melody playing.

On “The New Jersey Freylekhs,” the Klez Dispensers have chosen to revive Musiker’s approach plus add a few twists of their own. The group puts violin and mandolin back into the ensemble in the person of Amy Zakar, spicing up the horn-heavy jazz sound with some Old World tam, or flavor. Many of the group’s arrangements are solidly rooted in Adrian Banner’s piano, another borrowing from jazz.

But purists needn’t fret. In clarinetist Alex Kontorovich, the stately playing of Dave Tarras lives on. Like Tarras, Kontorovich holds much in reserve, carefully parceling out the trademark achy, bent notes – the krekhts and kneytshn that klezmer inherited from cantorial music – using them as delicately placed punctuation. Trumpeter Ben Holmes sounds equally schooled in the playing of Benny Goodman trumpeter Ziggy Elman and the Klezmatics’ Frank London. The rest of the musicians have obviously done their homework, too.

The Klez Dispensers don’t play with blinders on. The album’s final track, a version of “Der heyser bulgar,” originally popularized by clarinetist Naftule Brandwein in the 1920s, suggests that these 20-something musicians have avant-garde leanings of their own. The selection opens with the instruments entering one at a time, playing a fractured version of the melody, before the bass lays down an odd Balkan meter over state-of-the-art drumming of the sort more likely to be heard at the Knitting Factory than at a Jewish wedding -- or any wedding, for that matter.

On “The New Jersey Freylekhs,” the Klez Dispensers dispense the voice of both klezmer past and future, providing the connective tissue between the two.

-- Seth Rogovoy

The Klez Dispensers celebrate the release of “The New Jersey Freylekhs” with a concert in the Richardson Auditorium in Alexander Hall at Princeton University at 3 p.m. on Sunday, February 22. Also on the bill of “Kleztravaganza,” celebrating five years of klezmer at Princeton, is The Klezmocrats, a Princeton student klezmer group. For reservations call (609) 258-5000.

[This review originally appeared in the Forward on February 13, 2004. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2004. All rights reserved.]

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