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The more-or-less 25 essential klezmer recordings

My wife is putting together a list for librarians of essential Jewish recordings—everything from classical to cantorial to Ashkenazic and Sephardic folk traditions. I tend never to make lists, never to recommend music. Sometime in adolescence I got tired of the "who is the best rock guitarist of all time" conversations. Best at what? Best when? Would I really want to be stuck on a desert island with this wanker? So, with the exception of the occasionally updated "10 CDs I'm listening to now" list, I stay clear.

Here's the problem. First, we all hear with different ears and for different reasons. Some recordings are simply great, but if I used greatness as a criterion, I'd have to include everything by Brave Old World and the Klezmatics and dozens of others. That's not a top-25 list. I'd also have to include scores of CDs that move me greatly, or that are my idea of "comfort food", and I'd have to include merely "good" CDs by bands that I would go a long way in a snowstorm or across the desert to hear, because when I hear the recordings, I hear them live, again, and it feels so good.

But this is a different exercise. Suppose you wanted to express the breadth of klezmer—just that one bit of Jewish music? Suppose you wanted to ensure that people understood that there was amazing klezmer coming from places many of us aren't conscious of there being Jews, to being with? Suppose you had to give people a sense of the history of klezmer recordings and the ways the music is changing? In this case, I also tried to emphasized a few of the most promising young musicians.

So, finally, I made an arbitrary list of just a bit more than 25. In many cases I included "significant" CDs by a group, even though I might listen more to others. In a couple of cases I included more than one CD by an artist, but mostly, the rule was "if you appeared on one CD, that's all I was going to mention". I ended up barely mentioned European klezmer bands, which is quite painful and unfortunate. But I had to stop winnowing somewhere. And heaven help me from the rightful wrath of many friends whose bands could of/should have been on this list—and would have been included on a different day with the stream of my thinking going in a different direction. At best, all I can say is that this is a good place to begin, but not the only place to begin.

What I will say is this. If you email me your suggestions about who I left out, and if you include a few lines about why, I'll add those posts. (Any year I'll figure out how to re-code this blog and put back in the tools for comments (sans spam), but I have another year for my master's, it's an election year, and I'm working full-time, so it probably won't happen in time for this discussion.)

Here's the list:

  1. Moshe Berlin & Sulam / Klezmer Music from Tel Aviv, 1992 (Israeli "Meron" klezmer traditions—my favorite of his recordings, but there is also one from the Israeli national library, and heck, just about any recording would do)
  2. Naftule Brandwein / King of klezmer clarinet (reissue, 1996) (if Dave Tarras was "the Beatles," Brandwein was the "Rolling Stones")
  3. Brave Old World / Beyond the Pale, 1992 (this is the album where everything changed; still intense—but, heck, you really want all of their records)
  4. Flying Bulgars Tsirkus, 1999 (Canadian band as inventive as the Klezmatics, if you can find "Agada" or "Fire," those are just as essential and so very different)
  5. German Goldenshteyn / In the Tradition, 2006 (maybe the last of the old masters; immigrated from the former Soviet Union to Brooklyn in the 1980s; also check out his nephew Arkady Goldenshtein)
  6. Steven Greenman / Stempenyu's Dream 2004 (new klezmer)
  7. Klezmania / Shmoozin' 2008 (Australia—but, again, they produced no CDs that haven't been incredible)
  8. Klezmatics / Rise Up, 2003 (their best klezmer/Americana CD, I think, but to not also have at least "Jews with Horns" and "Brother Moses" (with Joshua Nelson) and Grammy-winning Woody Guthrie CD?)
  9. Klezmer Conservatory Band / Dance me to the end of love, 2000 (or any CD they've released, really. I was tempted to put their first, "Yiddishe Rennaissance" on the list because it was such an incredible jolt of energy, but that was nothing compared to what they've done since....)
  10. Klezmer Plus / featuring Sid Beckerman and Howie Leess 1991? (last recording by some of the American greats accompanied by Pete Sokolow and Henry Sapoznik)
  11. David Krakauer / Bubbemeises (klezmer-jazz-hip hop—who could have too many Krakauer recordings, or see him too often? Just because I haven't reviewed this yet, don't let it pass)
  12. Mikveh, 2001 (klezmer and Yiddish by an all-woman band of the best)
  13. Lerner Moguilevsky Dúo / Sobreviviente, 2003 (Argentinian klezmer-jazz. This is their live recording, and perhaps their most accessible CD)
  14. Margot Leverett & the Klezmer Mountain Boys / 2nd Ave Square Dance (klezmer+bluegrass. Still not officially released. You do have all of Margot's recordings, right?)
  15. Frank London's Klezmer Brass Allstars / Carnival Conspiracy, 2005 (world music klezmer brass under direction of Frank London. Another person whose work any klezmer afficionado—or fan of excellent, interesting, always different music—should know intimately)
  16. Itzhak Perlman / In the Fiddler's House, 1995 (you get the Klezmatics, Brave Old World, Klezmer Conservatory Band, Andy Statman … and Perlman. What's not to treasure?)
  17. Joel Rubin / Midnight Minyan (most recent, and an excellent representative of his music. A review is due.)
  18. Shirim Klezmer Orchestra / Naftule's Dream, 1993 (another album that just changed everything; still great; you must also have their most recent, "Mayses")
  19. Shtreiml / Spicy Paprikash, 2003 (Canada, new generation of klezmer. They have three albums; don't miss any)
  20. SoCalled / GhettoBlaster (Canada—yiddish and klezmer as re-imagined as hip hop; don't miss his CD with Sophie Solomon, "hiphopkhasene," or his work with David Krakauer)
  21. Andy Statman and David Grisman / Songs of our Fathers, 1995 (perhaps the best yiddish/klezmer/bluegrass fusion)
  22. Andy Statman & Zev Feldman / Jewish Klezmer Music 1979? (one of the CDs that kicked off the revival)
  23. Strauss/Warschauer Duo / Rejoicing (klezmer-chasidic; new Jewish music and one of the most amazing recordings of recent years; a must-have for Yiddish, Chasidic, new Jewish music, or klezmer)
  24. Alicia Svigals / Fidl, 1997 (the CD that made klezmer fiddle matter by the original Klezmatics fiddler and an amazing teacher)
  25. Dave Tarras / Yiddish-American Music, 1925-1956 (reissued 1996?) (the master)
  26. Veretski Pass / Trafik, 2008 (the most recent by the best of Eastern European roots klezmer; see the larger "Budowitz" ensemble, as well as anything by "Di Naye Kapelye" or that features Christian Dawid)
  27. Michael Winograd / Bessarabian Hop 2007 (new traditional klezmer by one of the most interesting young klezmorim)


The series curated by Rita Ottens and Joel Rubin is essential. I mention here the first four that I encountered, available on Wergo.

  1. Patterns of Jewish Life (Brave Old World, Epstein Bros, Seymour Rexsite & Miriam Kressyn, et al) (2x) (An amazing snapshot assembled by Joel Rubin & Rita Ottens; includes a disk's worth of Ashkenazic and Sephardic cantors)
  2. Doyres (Generations) Traditional Klezmer Recordings 1979 - 1994
  3. Shteygers (Ways) New Klezmer Music 1991 - 1994
  4. Yikhes (Inheritance) Klezmer Recordings from 1907 - 1939

28 Sep—Howard Wolfson provides one example of other excellent choices for this list: Desert Island Klezmer Discs