More than 35 five years have passed since the beginnings of the worldwide klezmer revival, and the Klezmatics — the New York-based six-member band — have risen to the top of the American and European klezmer hierarchy.
Next stop: The Gershman Y, where the recent Grammy Award winners will join the Dixie Hummingbirds, a gospel group no stranger to Grammy itself, in an 8 p.m. benefit concert of "Heart & Soul" on Saturday, March 10.
Every American Jewish community, including here in Philadelphia, is home to literally dozens of bands playing klezmer music, but the Klezmatics have achieved a significant level of international fame. A look at their performance calendar (www. klezmatics.com) shows more concerts in Eastern and Western Europe in the next several months than in the United States.
According to Klezmatics founding singer and accordionist Lorin Sklamberg: "In the USA, we are hired more by Jewish organizations. In Europe, the opposite is true. Most of our work takes place in Europe."
In the beginning of the American klezmer "movement," the early bands concentrated on replicating performances and arrangements found on early recordings of the great Jewish bands and musicians active in the early 20th century. The best of the 1970 groups were those whose music most closely sounded like the early recordings. Soon, however, several groups started bringing unusual creativity to their music-making.
After their start in 1986 in New York's East Village, the Klezmatics initiated collaborations with both Jewish and non-Jewish world musicians, resulting in unusual amalgams of arrangements and original songs. My personal favorite album is "The Well," a haunting recording of original Yiddish songs co-featuring Israeli superstar Chava Alberstein, released in 1998.
The band appeared with Peter Yarrow — of Peter, Paul and Mary — and Alberstein on the site of Berlin's New Synagogue in 2001. This concert was aired on PBS in the United States and throughout the world. One of their less successful gigs was a joint concert and subsequent tour with 1950s pop singer and composer Neil Sedaka doing Yiddish standards at the Mann Center a few seasons ago, which was flawed both technically and musically.
The band has enjoyed a long period of personnel stability, which has led to incredible musical growth and creativity. Frank London (trumpet player and composer) is an original member, and Paul Morrisset (bass and tsimbl) joined after about one year. Violinist Lisa Gutkin is the most recent member, explained Sklamberg. Best of the Best
Just recently, the new Klezmatics album, "Wonderwheel," received a Grammy Award in the "best contemporary world music" category, and the group will hopefully perform selections this week from the new collection. The album contains 12 original songs to lyrics by the American folk music icon Woody Guthrie.
Listening to the recording reveals the many musical influences that have colored the creativity of the band members. I especially enjoyed "Mermaid's Avenue," which describes the culinary treats and sights to be found in this polyglot neighborhood of Coney Island.
Yet Sklamberg said, almost wistfully: "There is something Jewish about all the tunes. We always seem to have one foot in the tradition."