Full Metal Klezmer

El Gallo Rojo

Meshuge Klezmer Band
Treyf 1929
El Gallo Rojo

The Anabaptist Loop
Improvisatore Involontario

By Ken Waxman
February 20, 2006

Why do Italian improv-Klezmer bands exist, you may ask? Well – to answer a question with a question – why not? Musicians of Southern European heritage have been a mainstay of jazz since its beginning and been part of American popular music since its beginning, so why shouldn’t they get involved in the newest variant of Klezmer sounds?

This mixture of melancholy plaints and energetic dance rhythms that solidified into modern Klezmer in the late 19th and early 20th century is a close cousin to similar effects in such celebratory Italian dance forms as the tarantella. Plus, now that John Zorn and other Radical Jewish composers make a case for the sonic universality of stylized Ashkenazi musical forms, Klezmer has become deracinated, with adherents and performers in locations such as Japan where there have never been Jewish communities. Thus finding two Klezmer CDs, where most of the players involved aren’t even Italian-Americans, but Italians, merely provides another example of Europeans re-importing a cast-off musical culture and reintegrating it with new improv strategies of the Old World.

Each aggregation here has chosen to approach the music differently.

The six-piece – and guests – Meshuge Klezmer Band (MKB) is superficially more traditional. Treyf 1929 turns age-old melodies into the soundtrack for a fanciful New York ghetto tale, the details of which unfortunately are printed only in Italian in the CD booklet. Extending traditional melodies with post-modern timbres, a few American avant-Klezmerites lend their talents to the band for added verisimilitude.

Made up of some of Italy’s most versatile improvisers, the five-piece Full Metal Klezmer (FMB) band – along with a few special guests – decidedly goes one step further. On Shachor, nine original tunes, mostly composed by guitarist Fabio Basile, are shoehorned into time-honored Klezmer forms, then expanded with samples, synthesizer licks, rock beats, electronics and Free Improv layering.

One of FMB’s main soloists is Sicilian saxophonist Gianni Gebbia, who over the years has made a point of collaborating with advanced American improvisers as well as Europeans. The Anabaptist Loop features him and the other members of the Switters trio, using different rhythms and sound strategies to produce an aural picture of images inspired by the works of novelist Tom Robbins and Wu-Ming. Klezmer’s mixed secular-religious texts are replaced by post-modern prose strategies.

Guitarist Basile and drummer Zeno De Rossi are the two constants between FMB and MKB, Yet like the pseudonymous Wu-Ming they’re also tricksters who take on many guises. The drummer has recorded straightforward jazz dates with Brooklyn-based clarinetist Chris Speed and Trieste-born pianist Giorgio Pacorig, both featured on Shachor, as well as adding percussion to the Mickey Finn experimental string quartet. Basile, who also plays bass, has been featured on TV broadcasts and teaches guitar techniques.

Treyf 1929, is divided into Side A and Side B, with the performances underlined by the intermittent crackle of ancient 78s. Crafting a sound world as stylized as primitive Traditional Jazz records – or field recordings of Italian folk songs, come to think of it – allows the Yiddish airs sung by cantor Samuel Malavsky to be integrated with contemporary charts. Besides a core group of Basile, De Rossi, alto saxophonist Roberto Lancai, violinist Maria Vicentini, bassist Stefano Corso and accordionist Andrea Ranzato, other soloists include Americans, trombonist Dave Harris, second guitarist Pete Fitzpatrick of Naftle’s Dream and Klezmatics’ trumpeter Frank London.

More in-your-face, Shachor’s core ensemble is De Rossi on mellotron, organ, samples and drums; Basile on guitars and glockenspiel; Gebbia on alto saxophone, flute and jew’s harp; Pacorig on electric and acoustic pianos, organ, synthesizer and samples: Enrico Terragnoli on bass and samples; plus special guests that include Speed, Lancai, and Rimini-born Vincenzo Vasi on theremin.

With unvarying personnel for all its 17 tracks, The Anabaptist Loop highlights the talents of Gebbia, who plays alto and sopranino saxophone plus flute; Vasi – a jazz-rocker, who also works as an engineer – on bass and theremin; and Catania-born drummer Francesco Cusa who has recorded with DJs Max & Fab and as part of the Trinkle Trio with guitarist Paolo Sorge and French tubaist Michel Godard.

Reminiscent of Zorn’s experimental pastiches on albums like The Big Gundown in his pre-Radical Jewish Culture period, Shachor includes two give-away references to Zorn. Vocalist Claudia Bidoli dramatically whispers properly existential French lyrics on the title track, backed only by Terragnoli’s bass and De Rossi’s brush work until a finale that explodes into frenzied sax shrieks. Gebbia’s sputtering sax lines, Basile’s Telestar-like guitar vamps and Pacorig’s smudged Hammond organ daubs are even more over-the-top on the sythn-driven treatment of “Tema Per Le Goff”, by Ennio Morricone, one of Zorn’s favored composers.

As for the rest of the CD, no one would ever confuse FMK with an orthodox Klezmer band. As a matter of fact, except for the very occasional snatch of shetl intonation, the band’s language is atonal postmodernism rather than Yiddish. Take “Ruach”, composed, like all but two of CD’s tunes, by Basile. Before he vibrates some Spaghetti Western lead guitar, the composer gets to twang a Jew’s harp, De Rossi cross- patterns a military tattoo, and Gebbia leaps between winnowing, low-pitched flute lines and plaintive jungle-like sax honks.

Speed’s Klezmer-inflected clarinet mixes with Gebbia’s alto for a fralicher interlude on “Beth-Shemesh”, following glockenspiel resonation from Basile and Pacorig’s smokey organ-licks. By the ends however Yiddish dance rhythms predominate.

Elsewhere, poppy mellotron lines, snaky theremin trills and flanged guitar licks join with beats and samples to multiply the 21st century musical references. On his own Gebbia’s reed work range from shredded Jmes White-like punk jazz to vibrato-laden velvety phrasing reminiscent of the techniques of the late Fausto Papetti, Italy’s MOR sax maestro.

He gets even more scope in the freer circumstances of the Switters Trio, and 17 tracks on which to soar. Here echoes of early Ornette Coleman are more apparent in his soloing, especially when the bassist and drummer produce electric beats reminiscent of Prime Time. Vasi’s contrapuntal thwacking and finger popping helps keep the pulse moving, while Cusa’s percussion patterns incorporate Latin time signatures, folkloric dance suggestions, feather-light brush work, cymbal spinning and slapping plus the ratcheting and rattling of bells, drum tops and maracas.

Every so often the simple rhythm takes on Italian horror movie soundtrack mutations with the music interrupted by rhythmic lip smacking, ghoul-like throaty growls and gulps and spittle encrusted basso snorts. With Vasi responsible for oscillating theremin pulsations, Cusa producing conga-like resonation from his kit as well as time-keeping, and Gebbia’s outflow ranging from diaphragm vibrations, sexy, double-tongued peeps and glottal punctuation, the additional vocal color is probably a group effort.

So too is Treyf 1929, with the MKB so committed to recreating the circumstances of its imaginative primordial tale, that the music exists on top of the intermittent crackle of ancient 78s. Not only does the first track begin with the sound of a photograph needle hitting the groove, but the CD concludes with the lifting of a tone arm.

Along the way MKB bows to Klezmer machers as different as Mickey Katz and Naftule Brandwein. But the Verona-based band doesn’t let the joyous polyphonic cacophony interfere with musicianship. With 18 musicians participating at different times, stand-outs include trombonist Harris mixing staccato double-tonguing with vibrating pulsations from the accordion of Andrea Ranzato or Abe Yabloner on “Grandma’s Draidel”, and London’s lowing shofar blows colored by contrapuntal echoes from the other horns and frailing guitar lines.

Want a quick definition of post-modernism or primitive-futurism? Just listen to Brandwein’s “Oy Tate S’iz Gut”. Before sliding in a contrafact of “Caravan”, Ziggy Ellman-like freyleich trumpet lines face off against JB-like funky electric bass beats. Then, possibly through contact with the Ellington-Tizol line the brass turns to Bubber Miley influenced Jungle style plunger tones.

Orthodox, conservative or reform, however your taste runs in improv-inflected, European-style dance-like music, you’ll likely find something to appreciate on every one of the innovative CDs here.