What's a Klezmer?
Klezmer music is a genre of non-sacred music originating with European Jews. The music sounds somewhat like a cross between gypsy and middle-eastern music with many additional influences including Russian folk, Israeli, and American Broadway. The music was and is mostly heard at festive occassions like weddings and bar mitzvahs. There are numerous styles of klezmer; some tunes are vocal, others purely instrumental; many are intended for dancing, though some are just for listening.
Jewish immigrants brought klezmer to the US in the early part of the 20th century. For a time, the music flourished in the US. However, as immigrant Jews became assimilated into mainstream American culture, klezmer music faded, and nearly died out entirely.
Fortunately, klezmer music has experienced a resurgence of popularity over the past several decades thanks to the Klezmer Conservatory Band, Giora Feidman, Andy Statman, and a new generation of devoted performers and
My collection of recordings has grown considerably as more new and vintage recordings are released. Much remains the same between the older, classic recordings and the newer ones. In addition to a traditional sound, though, many contemporary groups have been influenced by recent musical trends and styles, which is the nature of any living art-form. Newer groups tend to include more improvisation, more complex counterpoint, and a greater degree of eclecticism in general.
Favorite Klezmer Compact Discs
- Itzhak Perlman: In the Fiddler's House (Angel)
GREAT survey of the current klezmer world. Perlman plays with four top-notch bands: Brave Old World, The Klezmatics, The Andy Statman Orchestra, and The Klezmer Conservatory Band. The collaboration began when Perlman played with these groups in Poland as part of a Jewish culture festival (there is a great PBS documentary of their rehearsals and performances at this festival). The disc is a studio project made after returning to the US from the festival. Its range of styles runs the gamut from sparse, almost free form, to blazing, upbeat dance tunes.
- Giora Feidman: The Magic of the Klezmer (Delos)
Solo album featuring "the undisputed king of klezmer." Feidman is a masterful, classically trained, clarinetist. On this recording he plays bass clarinet as well as the standard B-flat soprano clarinet. The accompaniments vary from tune to tune, but are always very light--usually just 2 or 3 other instruments. The mood of this disc is generally mellow and reflective, conveying a feeling of joy tinged by sorrow, as klezmer music does so well.
- Klezmer Conservatory Band: Old World Beat (Rounder)
Klezmer Conservatory Band is probably the best-known contemporary klezmer group in the US. Based in Boston, they perform throughout the US and have recorded numerous CD's. Their national and international tours have been instrumental in bringing klezmer music to a wider audience, both Jewish and non-Jewish, and, dare I say it, re-popularizing the genre. They are a large group, about a dozen players, and probably best recreate the sound of an old-time klezmer orchestra. Ilene Stahl, clarinet, Judy Bressler, vocals, and Miriam Rabson, violin are magnificent leads, although, there is not a weak player in the bunch. Old World Beat is about evenly divided between instrumental and vocal tunes.
- Don Byron: Don Byron Plays the Music of Mickey Katz (Elektra
Byron is a top-notch klezmer and jazz clarinetist. He seems to specialize in modernizing sounds of the 1910's, twenties and thirties, while still maintaining clear ties to the tradition. This homage to Mickey Katz starts off with a free-improvisation that accompanies samples of Katz's stand-up shtick (Jewish vaudeville). The next tune is a straight-forward klezmer dance tune. The rest of the disc fills in all the spaces between. There is a lot of outrageous parody as well as subtle humor in this recording. It also contains some outstanding technical playing by Byron and his cohorts. Very entertaining, somewhat bizarre, funny, different, yet this this CD remains deeply rooted in klezmer traditions.
- Various performers: Klezmer Pioneers, 1905-1952 (Rounder)
Fascinating and fun survey of various klezmer performers. Vintage recordings date back to 1905! There's something mystical about hearing the voices and sounds of people who lived a century ago.