Next week, the progressively minded jazz clarinetist Ben Goldberg will treat us to not one but two new albums, each by nearly entirely different supporting musicians. We’ve already given the lowdown on Subatomic Particle Homesick Blues and Unfold Ordinary Mind, handing out exuberant thumbs up to both records.
While we’re all waiting until Tuesday, February 19, 2013, for the shiny new Goldberg discs, here’s a good time to revisit a blast from his past. Goldberg had in the 80s picked apart the traditional Jewish klezmer music and by informing it with his rich avant-garde jazz background, brought the music into the 21st century (about 12-15 years before the 21st century even started!). He did this leading a groundbreaking trio with Kenny Wolleson (drums) and Dan Seamans (bass) that single-handedly launched the whole “New Jewish Music” or “Radical Jewish Culture” movement in the 90s that continues today. That trio was known as the New Klezmer Trio.
During the mid-2000s I was discovering these three influential records Goldberg did with the New Klezmer Trio from 1990-2000. It got me to think about traditional Jewish and Eastern European folk music in a different way for the first time, and I gained an appreciation for the quirky music for its, in Goldberg’s own words, “microscopically detailed ornamentations and articulations,” a level of detail that rivaled some of the most sophisticated jazz or chamber music. The New Klezmer Trio made me pay attention to those things for the first time, because they added modern elements to the music that I was already receptive to, opening doors to rooms I didn’t bother to venture into before.
One of the best examples of the use of modern devices to lure me into an embrace of the old fashioned came from a track on the New Klezmer Trio’s middle album, Melt Zonk Rewire (1995), a song called “Feedback Doina.” Five years ago I felt strongly enough about the track to devote a One Track Mind to it, which I reprinted below. Ben Goldberg has since moved on from the modern klezmer music he birthed, but this was where he developed his own mechanics, his own musical personality. When I listen to the new Subatomic Particle Homesick Blues and Unfold Ordinary Mind, I still hear the same guy who some 25 years ago painstakingly disassembled klezmer music and put it back together again as a vital, dynamic form of contemporary music.
One of the subgenres of jazz that’s become an underground hit over the last ten years or so is klezmer jazz. Klezmer itself, as described by AllMusic Guide, is “a Yiddish term for musician and refers primarily to a tradition of Jewish folk music with deep German and Eastern European roots.” With many outstanding jazz artists being of Jewish heritage, it was perhaps inevitable that the two styles would come together in a luscious combination.
I’m not going to get into a dissertation of how and when it got combined with jazz but it probably started sometime in the sixties and really got rolling with the first album of John Zorn’s Masada in 1994. Zorn has gone further than just his Masada side project to nurture the progressive side of Hebrew music, though. He signed up several like-minded Jewish artists to his Tzadik label, like Pharoah’s Daughter, Koby Israelite and Frank London.
But one of my favorites of this unique breed of music is the lean, angular troika known as the New Klezmer Trio, the first combo to present a modern form of klezmer. Headlined by notable clarinetist Ben Goldberg, he is accompanied only by bassist Dan Seamans and drummer/marimba player Kenny Wolleson (Tom Waits, Norah Jones, John Patton, Sean Lennon).
The New Klezmer Trio approach to blending the Yiddish with the boppish goes like this: the music is played with the expressive clarinet central to klezmer but with the improvisional spirit of jazz. Seamans often plays the critical role of reconciling Goldberg’s traditional Hebrew tones with Wolleson’s abandonment of conventional time-keeping.
NKT has put out only three albums between 1990 and 2000, but it’s the middle one, Melt Zonk Rewire, that’s their most adventurous. They take more chances, the songs are more diverse and the jazz is more whack than on the other two.
In particular, “Feedback Doina” is unconventional because it’s not just a combination of klezmer and jazz; it’s a blend of klezmer, jazz and metal. The first three-fifths of the track is dominated by Seamans’ over-amped bass exploding into the white noise of feedback, while Goldberg noodles on top of it and Wollesen is rummaging around below it. As the din fades away, Goldberg settles into some quiet ruminations as Seamans carefully follows along with well-chosen notes that provide a harmonic complement the clarinet’s flowing melody. Wolleson’s brushes complete the serene setting that closes out the clamorous beginning and middle sections.
Time and again we’ve seen the most forward-looking music rooted in tradition. Charles Mingus understood that. So did Sun-Ra. Miles Davis for sure. That’s why klezmer jazz, when put in the hands of some ambitious and skilled musicians, can take something very old, combine it with some things more contemporary and make it sound leading edge and compelling. Such is the thing that the New Klezmer Trio did with a song like “Feedback Doina.”