Live In Krakow
Label Bleu LBLC 6667

Giving traditional music a facelift is a much more delicate task than ever attempted on ExtremeMakeover. Unlike the surgeons who cater to the desperate folks on that exploitative TV show, committed musicians want to preserve the basic contours of the sound while adding inventive flourishes.

That’s why clarinetist David Krakauer’s new CD is so impressive. Although original sounds such as Western Swing style accordion lines, beat-box samples and funky bass guitar licks are added to the mix, he doesn’t sever Klezmer from its history as Ashkanazi music of celebration and commentary.

A classically trained Juilliard graduate and veteran of the Klezmatics and his own Klezmer Madness! Krakauer, 46, — not to mention his sidefolk — may be more accomplished musicians than those who originated the style in Eastern Europe. But it’s likely that many of those alter knockers could as easily relate to this band’s sincere musical recasting as old time country bluesmen appreciated the heartfelt efforts of the more self-effacing blues revivalists. “I’m continuing to move the music forward while retaining the important elements of style, of phrasing, of the relationship to the sound of Yiddish music,” says Krakauer.

Thus it’s doubly fitting that Krakauer’s first live recording should take place in Krakow, Poland. Not only did his ancestors come from nearby areas, but before the Nazi invasion, Poland with its large Jewish population was the centre of Yiddish culture, including Klezmer.

LIVE may gain part of its originality from the beatbox work of Montreal native Socalled (sic), but even when miscellaneous rhythmic blips are mixed with sampled vocals as on “Turntable Pounding”, his interest in the Judaic tradition influences his beat deployment. These mixed beats end up contributing as much to the creation of this hand-clapping freylach as careful syncopation, including a hint of claves, from drummer Michael Sarin. Germane to the transformation are the clarinetist’s licks that sluice from squealing altissimo to bubbling chalameau.

Non-traditional influences remake other pieces. There’s “Gypsy Bulgar”, made popular by cymbalum player Joseph Maskowitz in the 1930s. Here its tremulous dance melody is recast when the accordion of Will Holshouser and guitar of Sheryl Bailey together sound more like they’re playing Texan Adolph Hofner’s Euro-oriented Western Swing than the nostalgic material of Hofner’s New York contemporary — Maskowitz. Bailey’s lick almost sound as if they’re coming from a steel guitar, although the clarinetist’s mellow trills keep the piece strictly kosher.

Then there’s “Klezmer à la Bechet Remix”, written by Krakauer to honor both the New Orleans soprano sax master and Naftale Brandwine, the Polish-Jewish clarinetist. Krakauer’s serpentine, double tongued warbles pay homage to both the Classic Jazz and Klezmer tradition so does Nicki Parrott’s steady, but unspectacular upright bass solo. Yet the remix courtesy of Socalled adds shimmering, dramatic timbres, accented Caribbean flams from Sarin and an overall Bo Diddley beat grafted onto the main theme.

Tambourine smacks, guitar riffs and double-stopped accordion work also make something different of “Naftule's Nussach”, a traditional tune the reedman arranged out of admiration for Brandwine. Krakauer’s rapturous reinterpretation coupled with a final descending melancholy clarinet note ends up making the music as much cantorial as worldly.

Because of circumstances, contemporary Klezmer includes as much melancholy as fralicher phraseology, something made most clear when the band tackles the waltz “Love Song for Lemberg/Lvov”, named for Ukrainian city important to Jews before the Second World War. Krakow is only an hour’s drive from the Auschwitz death camp, and as Krakauer’s balladic output gradually fractures into screaming, shrill tones a statement about what happened to much of Klezmer’s core audience during the Holocaust is strongly suggested. Further vigor is given to the leitmotif by the cacophony resulting from the accordionist’s speedy portamento and distorted shrieks from the guitarist’s effects pedal.

LIVE uses other sounds to reinterpret Klezmer’s power for a generation distanced from its origin but without depreciating the emotions — both good and bad — that created the music. Musicianship and memory combine for a session that’s rhythmically exciting enough to clap along to and rife with enough ideas to impress both the thoughtful and historically minded.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Turntable Pounding 2. Gypsy Bulgar 3. Dusky Bulgar 4. Offering Nign 5. Klezmer à la Bechet Remix 6. Naftule’s Nussach 7. Love Song for Lemberg/Lvov 8. Alt (Dot) Klezmer 9. Waiting for Julian 10. Sirba 11. Sheryl Pounds The Table

Personnel: David Krakauer (clarinet and bass clarinet); Sheryl Bailey (guitar); Will Holshouser (accordion); Nicki Parrott (bass); Michael Sarin (drums); Socalled (samples and beatbox)