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Jewish Sounds, 9/16/1998
The Klezmer Drums of Passion: A percussive set from Klezamir and a jazzy debut from Shawn's Kugel

by George Robinson

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Klezamir / Back in the Shtetl Again
The Philharmonic Experience / The Music of Rabbi Michel Twerski
Shawn's Kugel / Simcha!
Judy Silver / Beyond Tomorrow
Souls of Fire / Firedancing

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About Klezamir

About Shawn's Kugel

About Souls of Fire

Suppose there was a new federal law that said every jazz album must include a version of "Take the A Train." Much as I adore Billy Strayhorn's anthem, I'd get pretty tired of hearing every band -- no matter their genre of jazz -- playing it.

That's a little bit how I feel about a lot of recent klezmer recordings. Do we really need another version of "Firn di Mekhutonim Aheym?" In fact, two of this month's CDS have recordings of that standard, but there are also a raft of new or unlikely tunes to be heard as well. Thank goodness.

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Klezamir / Back in the Shtetl Again (self-produced). It's not exactly a revelation that a band playing a rhythm-driven music is shaped by its drummer. The new set from this Northampton, MA, based quintet is a case in point. Klezamir's first CD was a pleasant, often sprightly affair with jazz and country flavors, but the foregrounding of flute and acoustic guitar -- albeit a welcome change from the sound of most New Klezmer -- left the set feeling a bit insubstantial. Enter Keith Levreault, the band's new drummer. From the opening cut of "Shtetl," a powerhouse reading of the Hasidic tune "Vos Vet Zeyn" this record rocks. Even the flute/guitar numbers are transformed, (although I find flute a bit inexpressive for klezmer). A nicely programmed set, with some pleasingly unfamiliar material. The only real disappointment is a sluggish version of "Rumenye, Rumenye," a tune that is about ready for retirement anyway. Keep an eye on these guys; I suspect we'll be hearing more from them. (Klezamir's two CDS can be ordered from the website, or from Klezamir, c/o Amy Rose, 705 Station Rd., Amherst, MA 01002.) Rating: four stars.

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Philharmonic Experience, The / The Music of Rabbi Michel Twerski (Jewish Alternative Movement). Twerski is a prominent Hasidic rabbi from Milwaukee, known for his settings of the liturgy as much for his leadership and warmth. Recently, the Milwaukee Symphony performed arrangements of some of his compositions. This CD, however, uses a pickup group composed of Israel Philharmonic players conducted by Zeev Dorman, pianist Daniel Beliavsky and tenor Avromie Flam, performing charts by Yisroel Lamm. The result is infuriating. Twerski's melodies are charming and simple, the work of a man who is not a professional musician but who clearly has the soul of a tzadik. Lamm's arrangements are flatulent pseudo-Broadway bombast, a perfect complement to Flam's posturing vocals, drenched in fake emotion. The orchestra plays exceptionally well, but to what purpose? It is unusual for a record to make me angry. This record did that by insulting the music it purports to showcase. Rating: no stars, with a heartfelt apology to Rabbi Twerski.

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Shawn's Kugel / Simcha! (Popover Productions). Shawn Weaver was the reed player in the Seattle-based Mazeltones for nearly a decade before forming this new band. On clarinet he has the warm dark tone of Artie Shaw and a sure sense of swing. The latter, happily, is a trait shared by the rest of the band. There's also a firm sense of play operating here; how else to explain the accordion-driven cover of "Paint It Black?" The album is graced by several originals as well as an offbeat but pungently Middle-Eastern "Shalom Aleichem." And "Firn di Mekhutonim Aheym." (Oy.) A satisfyingly jazzy first offering. Rating: four stars.

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Silver, Judy / Beyond Tomorrow (Sounds Write). Another entry in the Debbie Friedman sweepstakes, a sweet-voiced folkie who alternates settings of liturgy with original songs. As the old joke goes, this is a good example of this sort of thing if you like this sort of thing. Silver uses more sophisticated instrumentation with a vaguely Middle-Eastern feel than most of the performers in this genre, but there's no escaping the easy prettiness that makes this album cloy after the first couple of bars of the first song. Diabetics avoid at all costs. Rating: 1 star, unless you are a fan of this genre, in which 4 stars but stay away from the dentist.

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Souls of Fire / Firedancing (Melting Pot). A British "world music" band that began its life playing klezmer, Souls of Fire tries to combine a whole United Nations-worth of Mediterranean and East European influences, although its roots are still largely in Jewish musics. On several cuts of this set (their first other than an EP a few years ago), they show the main problem of trying to integrate so many musical styles; there's no flow-through, so each cut sounds like a medley rather than a unified performance. And there are a couple of real clunkers, mainly "La Mambocina," which sounds like a very stiff British version of salsa. Oh, and they also record . . . you guessed it, "Firn di Mekhutonim Aheym, " in a rather lackluster arrangement that suggests the in-laws are not on very friendly terms. On the other hand, the musicianship is first-rate throughout and at their best they come off like a cross between Charles Mingus and the Paradox Trio. Rating: 3 stars.

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Contents copyright © 1998 by George Robinson. Used with permission. All rights reserved. Page last revised 23 October, 2017.