Old Roots New World - More High Octane Music out of Maxwell Street

by Richard Sharma

This review is reprinted from the Jewish-music mailing list, 10 Jan 2003, with the author's permission.

album coverMaxwell Street Klezmer Band
Old Roots New World
Shanachie SH67008, 2002


It may not be entirely new to many or even most fellow listers, but I only just had the great pleasure of catching up with the latest album by The Maxwell Street Klezmer Band, "Old Roots New World", and I just feel compelled to share this wonderful experience with you all.

My previous listening pleasure of Maxwell St. has so far sadly been limited to their previous album, "You Should Be So Lucky". (If you haven't got this one yet, it's also most highly recommended!) This had left me positively craving for more, with its eclectic mix of big band klezmer, Yiddish song, swing, and even a touch, a "feel", of blues and trad jazz, and the sheer high energy and obvious enthusiasm and enjoyment of the band. Now, with Old Roots New World, I have finally been able to extend that listening pleasure.

To say that Old Roots New World is Maxwell Street's usual high octane brand of eclectic music would be doing the band a grave injustice. This album goes well beyond the eclecticism I so enjoyed on their previous album and also embraces the world of contemporary classical music, with one composition by the band's arranger/violinist Alex Koffman - Leah's Saraband, originally written for bandleader/singer Lori Lippitz's wedding as can be gleaned from the excellent liner notes -, and a second by composer Ilya Levinson, specially arranged by the composer from the original orchestral score, entitled Klezmer Rhapsody. Needless to say almost, these excursions into the classical realm are not only completely successful but, to me and my ear at least, a great joy indeed. As a dedicated and life-long "genre-bender" myself, I doubly appreciate these efforts and would like to thank and commend everybody involved; take it from me, it took quite a bit of chutzpah to undertake. And I dare say one even has to acknowledge the label, Shanachie Entertainment, for being adventurous enough to support such a wonderful project. (Being adventurous is something that record cos. can be, generally, only very, very rarely "accused" of these days.)

One song that perhaps needs singling out is "Friling", a "Ghetto Tango". Like virtually all of its genre, this is a very poignant, deeply moving song, performed with the utmost sensitivity by vocalist Bibi Marcell and the rest of the band and made all the more poignant for me by the broad similarities between its underlying story and one that a close personal friend learned only a week or so ago concerning a member of his family in those dark days.

The remaining tracks are a delightful mix of Yiddish theatre songs (Molly Picon being also represented), traditional songs, traditional klezmer tunes and klezmer "standards" from the golden era of New World klezmer, the first three decades of the 20th Century. All the material is beautifully and sensitively arranged for Maxwell Street's big band sound by Alex Koffman, and beautifully performed by the whole band, with just the right balance of gusto and restraint. Their boundless enthusiasm and energy, as well as their huge enjoyment of what they're doing, come across the inherently dead medium of the CD and are highly infectious. Lori's and her fellow singers' vocals are, as ever, a heavenly delight - they make it all sound so easy and effortless, hallmarks of truly great singers. The instrumentalists are all an equal delight, and it would be most unfair to single any of them out, ordinarily. However, the circumstances are not entirely ordinary, and indeed tinged with some sadness, in that the album is dedicated to trombonist Sam Margolis who, the liner notes inform, sadly passed away after recording this album but before its completion. His soulful, jazzy trombone will no doubt be sadly missed by the band and music lovers in general alike, just as he himself is doubtlessly missed deeply by all who knew him or even knew of him. Old Roots New World makes for a wonderful and loving epitaph.

Maxwell Street's web site ( www.klezmerband.com ) modestly claims, "...we are not ... nor even authentic" [klezmer], well, I feel this does need qualifying. If we're talking historically authentic, i.e., e.g., a historically accurate re-creation of the style and sound of a 19th Century klezmer ensemble, then fair enough. However, if we're talking klezmer music per se, then Maxwell Street is as authentic as any band. It is precisely because of the work of bands such as themselves that klezmer remains a living tradition rather than turning into a piece of "museum culture". And within a living tradition, a living culture, there not only is always room for all manner of styles, be they historically accurate recreations of the past, or experimental, or anything in between, but there is indeed an absolute need for all such differing styles if the tradition is to remain a living one. Within that definition, any style can be authentic. And, indeed, who is to define what does and what does not constitute authenticity?

If you have not caught up with Old Roots New World yet, I cannot recommend it highly enough - go grab it if you can! It's on the Shanachie label (as is the earlier "You Should Be So Lucky"), so should be universally obtainable, or of course I expect directly from the band. Old Roots New World is just wonderful music, whichever way you want to look at it. It doesn't really matter whether or not you are specifically interested in klezmer/Yiddish music or even Jewish music in general, or classical or whatever. If you just like good music, chances are very high indeed that you'll enjoy this highly contageous music. The liner notes are excellent and informative, and the cover features very attractive (and quite appropriately symbolic) artwork by Arlin Robins.

Treat yourself, and "support your local artist/s" (or even not so local as the case may be).

by Richard Sharma, composer, richards@rainlore.demon.co.uk, 10 Jan 2003.

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