From Russia with lox

In the old country, Jewish musicians were not exactly part of the upper class. Good enough to play at a wedding party, maybe: just don't try to kiss the bride. So it's not surprising that they tended to identify with gypsies, who in their travels had picked up a melange of musical influences.

Klezmer music was born there — Poland, Hungary, Russia, et cetera — but almost all the extant recordings of early klezmer were made by immigrant musicians in the United States. The contemporary resurgence of interest in the instrumental form has led to a few key CD reissues:

Yiddish-American Klezmer Music, 1925-1956
(Yazoo 7001)

Dignified and highly disciplined, clarinetist Dave Tarras was enough of a pro to welcome both leading and supporting gigs. His clear, elegant tone made him a perfect soloist, and he swung just enough to impress Benny Goodman. Widely regarded as the most important figure in klezmer history, Tarras is well-represented on this disc with 23 tunes, ranging in style from the whimsically martial "Yiddisher March" to the Andrews Sisters-meets-Eastern Europe (Bagelman Sisters, actually) of "A Vaibele A Tsnien."

King of the Klezmer Clarinet
(Rounder 1127)

Rival of Tarras on the bandstand and in the history books, Brandwein was a drinker, clown, and friend to gangsters. He also had killer clarinet chops, and was happy to let his devil-may-care personal style show in his playing. As a result, this collection has an irresistible vigor that complements the Tarras disc nicely. This is the spirit not of sit-down concerts, but of the kind of party where everyone dances, and if it can't win you over to klezmer music, you might as well give up.

Klezmer Music: Early Yiddish Instrumentals, 1908-1927
(Arhoolie / Folklyric 7034)

Compiled and annotated by scholar/klezmer champion Dr. Martin Schwartz, this comp includes some old 78s from Poland and Turkey among its New York recordings. Grouping artists who didn't leave behind enough material for a CD with the better-known Brandwein et al, this shows the breadth of early klezmer, and is very similar to the passed-around mix tapes that got most of today's revival bands excited about the music.


The fact that the label "klezmer" doesn't quite apply to many of the musicians influenced by the aforementioned records is proof of the music's fluid, ever-evolving nature. Whether they embrace the K-word or not, these artists would be making very different music if not for Tarras and his contemporaries.


Prolific beyond words, avant-garde bad boy John Zorn is more jazz man than klezmer musician. But he's used his clout to bring a lot of hipster cred to the various permutations of Jewish music. His Tzadik record label promotes "Radical Jewish Culture" from wildly talented folks like David Krakauer, Anthony Coleman, and the New Klezmer Trio, many of whom play regularly on New York's Lower East Side.

Roma Variations
(Traditional Crossroads)

Yunakov may play sax instead of clarinet, and may be descended from the Roma people (a.k.a. gypsies) instead of, say, Polish Jews, but from the first melody he plays on this disc, the shared roots are obvious. Here, traditional Bulgarian wedding music meets modern percussion, and the whole thing gets sped up just a little more than seems healthy.

Plays the Music of Mickey Katz
(Elektra / Nonesuch)

One part Spike Jones, one part Ernie Kovacs, and one part virtuoso, Katz milked klez for humor during the post-WWII period when the pop charts seemed open to anything. Here Byron, one of the best clarinetists around today and always up for a little jostling of the racial and musical status quo, pays tribute to the man's most infectious music. Featuring everything from "C'est Si Bon" to the "Dreidel Song," this disc is the kind of twisted intro to klezmer that Naftule would've appreciated.

Dance Me to the End of Love

The most self-consciously academic of this batch, the KCB here alternates full-throttle big band music with more introspective, pared-down instrumentals and swing-era arrangements. They obviously have an eye on crossover success, and Judy Bressler's vocals are a bit too cute for some tastes, but many of this album's seeming long shots (like the Leonard Cohen-penned title track) pay off nicely.

John Defore writes for San Antonio Current, where this feature first appeared. Send comments to
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