Jewish Alternative Music / A Guide for the Perplexed

Album cover: Improv on '50s photo of a disgusted-looking boy receiving priestly blessing

A guide for the perplexed
JAM/Knitting Factory Records KFR #216, 1998

There is an image conveyed by Jonathan Boyarin and Jack Kugelmass in their wonderful compilation of yizker bikher written by survivors of the Holocaust, to memorialize towns and communities that were gone, "From a Ruined Garden", in which the editors describe the ferment of Jewish life prior to the Holocaust. Instead of coming to terms with the 20th century, the discussion was ended with the destruction of the community. In the last decade, I have felt that, here in the United States, we are reopening those questions, and raising that ferment again. In some ways, this was typified by the success of the "Klezmer Revival."

Twenty years ago, klezmer was something secular, a tie to a socialist Jewish-American tradition even. If nothing else, it was a rejection of the sterility of 50s and 60s Jewish life. Today, of course, klezmer is alive and well, and the edges of Jewish music have moved on. We have resumed that diversity and debate that was interrupted first by Hitler, and then by Ben Gurion. So, it's a relief to note that years of sponsoring subversive Jewish bands at the Knitting Factory have paid off in the start of a new label, "Jewish Alternative Movement" (JAM), and a passle of diverse edges of aural Jewish experience.

If you thought last year's Klezmania compilation was fun, but perhaps a bit tame, you'll feel right at home with JAM's premier release, a compilation called "Guide to the Perplexed." That's the compilation I'm describing in this review, although that may have been hard to parse for a few minutes, given that I was off on my own tangent talking about Jewish identity as I see it, and not particularly about JAM, the Knit, or the bands on this CD. (Besides, the album typography is passé--grunge faces from T26 and Emigré that were hot three years ago.) This is less off-topic than it might seem, and represents my own written attempt to describe the tangentially Jewish nature of some of these pieces.

Pieces such as as Steve Dalchinsky's spoken "Fruit Flys" or Anthony Coleman's always-brilliant jazz piano on "Hanukkah Bush" require a bit of musical thought. Coleman describes his piece thus: "... the melodic and harmonic material is derived from very simple serial proceedures applied to two songs, "Hanukah, O Hanukah Come Light the Menorah" and "Raisins and Almonds". My project is/was an attempt to thematize the particular palimpsest of my particular real - life Jewish experience. Huge holes, really huge ones, but plenty of allusive signposts along the way.... Having the Christmas Tree, knowing it wasn't "my" holiday symbol, but at the same time, not finding the proffered symbols of "my" people nearly so seductive, and not particularly encouraged to do so ... a weird retrospective sadness, a dreamy longing for a world where I could have been more active as subject - but at the same time, a recognition that the life I led was a fundamental American-Jewish experience...."

There are a lot of bands here that I have long thought of as connected to the Knitting Factory: Hasidic New Wave, Paradox Trio, The Klezmatics, David Krakauer are all represented by the type of stuff anyone familiar with their stuff will find familiar. Way out there to the rest of the world, perhaps, but rather familiar in this context. In fact, both the Hassidic New Wave and Klezmatics cuts emphasize "sootool"--drunkenness or drugs--rather than musical experimentation. To me, that is not the most interesting part of the edge, but I can't deny that a lot a lot of people seem to like the Klezmatics' "Reefer Song."

On the other hand, the rescue of a cut by Naftule's Dream from a period when they were setting forgotten Yiddish poetry to new avant garde music is incredibly welcome. This, mind you, from the same musicians who did my favorite post-revival recording of "and the angels sing." If you've listened at all to other bands experimenting with lost Yiddish poetry, such as Austria's "Di Goyim" you'll hear similarity and intriguing difference.

Yosi Piamenta, the master of Chasidic Rock, in all its current stultifying permutations, gets a chance to showcase chops I haven't heard him play since he blew my mind in Jerusalem 25 years ago, and then, a year later, showed that he had learned to play shlock, if that's what the audience wanted. Until now. Maybe he's been waiting for the winds of change to gather, just like me. (Or, maybe he's been waiting for a chance to make public the stuff he plays for love, and has been playing all along.)

Judith Sloan's spoken piece succinctly takes on a lot of the Jewish identity (or non-identity) that American Jews of my generation and later grew up with (or without, as the case most often was). Neshama Carlebach makes the sort of chasidic music that people who loved her father will continue to love. And then, there are people here, like Andy Haas, with his "Alef-Beit" didgideroo, or Uri Caine, or the fabric-stretching "Kol Nidre" by Forgiveness, who are all entirely new to me, and wonderful. Even the Wally Brill cut is one of his better "Covenant" pieces.

There isn't much missing, either. I'd have expected to hear something from the New Orleans Klezmer AllStars, or New Klezmer Trio, or even John Zorn (who has his own Knitting Factory label, "tzadik".) It would be really neat to hear from the Flying Bulgars who, like the Klezmatics, are fusing all sorts of world music with klezmer and making it sound danceable, listenable, and authentic, or even from the David Buchbinder (Flying Bulgar's leader) band, Medina, or the West Coast "Davka" that has defined a fusion of classical, Jewish, and MIddle Eastern sounds. But, this is still a damn good representation of good, interesting, fun, Jewish edge music.

In brief, this compilation marks and demonstrates a rebirth of Jewish cultural diversity. It brings together musicians who've been around making edge music for a few decades while the rest of us were looking, listening elsewhere. And it brings new music to the fore. The klezmer revival is no longer the relevant parameter of Jewish cultural change and diversity. The new edges are here, on JAM, in this new "Guide to the Perplexed." The fact that the CD is amazingly listenable, varied, and fun, is the bonus.

For just about the first time since Alligator records ran out of amazing mind-blowing blues artists I'm convinced to pay attention to a label as the home of music that draws me in. You will feel the same way, once you've picked up a copy of the "Guide" and given it a few listens, yourself. The only question, in my mind, is how to represent this diversity in other areas: video, prose and poetry, political action, ritual....

Reviewed by Ari Davidow, 5/14/98, revised 2/25/03


  1. Hasidic New Wave: "Men Trinkt Mashke"--People Drink Whiskey (trad/hNW) 4:30
  2. Paradox Trio: "Hora Attik"--Old Hora (Ray Musiker) 5:06
  3. Uri Caine: "Hava Nagila" (trad.) 6:28
  4. Naftule's Dream: "Metal" (words: Aaron Leyeles; music: Glenn Dickson) 3:08
  5. Steve Dalchinsky: "Fruit Flys" (Steve Dalchinsky) 2:43
  6. The Klezmatics: "Mizmor Shir Lehanef"--Reefer Song (music: Frank London; words: Michael Wex) 5:13
  7. David Krakauer's Klezmer Madness: "Gasn Nign" (David Krakauer) 4:39
  8. Wally Brill: "The Secret of the Sabbath" (Wally Brill) 5:54
  9. Judith Sloan: excerpts from "Denial of the Fittest" (words: Judith Sloan & Warren Lehrer; music: trad./Andy Teirstein) 5:50
  10. Yosi Piamenta: David & Goliath (Yosi Piamenta) 5:17
  11. Gary Lucas' Gods and Monsters: "Breath of Bones" (Gary Lucas) 6:11
  12. Forgiveness: "Kol N'drei" (music: Rea Mochiach/Alon Cohen; text: trad.) 1:40
  13. Neshama Carlebach: "Gam Ki Elech" (trad./Shlomo Carlebach) 3:48
  14. Anthony Coleman: "Hanukkah Bush" (Anthony Coleman) 5:51
  15. Andy Haas: "Alef Beit"--for didjeridu and alphabet (Andy Haas) 3:58

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