Sharps & flats

New York combo Hasidic New Wave illustrates the difference between klezmer and Jewish jazz.

By Seth Mnookin
August 11, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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It's easy to think of klezmer, with its honks and bleats and frenetic beats, as Jewish jazz. After all, the Semitic Eastern European music is kind of boppy, decidedly virtuosic and heavily reliant on the clarinet. But klezmer musicians, as a rule, eschew improvisation, the very essence of jazz since its New Orleans birth.

On the fringes of New York's neo-klezmer scene, however, a roving band of avant-garde aficionados is using traditional Hebrew chord changes and melodies to get at a Judaic expression of jazz. "Kabalogy," the fourth record by the New York combo led by Klezmatics trumpeter Frank London, combines the eclectic, improvisational traditions of '70s New York avant-funk bass maestro Jaco Pastorius, rock provocateur Frank Zappa and free-jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman with Semitic melodies and traditional chord changes.


While the album features a broad range of styles, from art-rock to neo-bop, it's the most "Jewish" of the compositions that stand out, allowing London and Co. to show just how much fun they can have playing with melody and rhythm. Traditional numbers like "Burkan Cocek" and "Satmar Hakafos Nign #3" are reverent, lyrical and playful all at the same time, while "Purple Vishnu" puts a Hebraic tinge on Hendrix and Pastorius, with bassist Fima Ephron riding a swelling wave recalling Jaco at his most persistently lyrical. And "The Frank Zappa Memorial Bris" is a hopped-up ditty that sounds like the CD is being played on 45 speed. Zappa, a fan of all things ethnic and weird, certainly would have approved.

The only misfires are a pair of tunes that slow down the frenetic improvisation in favor of straight-ahead jazz. "Benigni," a roiling number, is neither moving nor evocative enough to truly work, and the title track, a surprisingly pedestrian bop tune, is saved only by a handful of incendiary solos by guitar god David Fiuczynski, best known for his ax-grinding work with the virtuosic rock pioneers the Screaming Headless Torsos.

But these are minor complaints. Throughout the disc, Fiuczynski once again shows himself to be one of the most enveloping guitarists playing today, firing off rapid-fire single notes with a melodic intensity rarely heard at any speed. The pointillistic fervor and psychedelic wizardry he displays on "OK Dear, Who?" should inspire several score imitators on its own. And London, who seems to be playing in a dozen different projects at any given time, displays the supreme facility that comes with immersing yourself in a musical culture for decades. On "Burkan Cocek," he smears his eloquent riffs around the peripheries of the melody, and on "H.W.N.," which he wrote, he explores the dirgelike minor keys and borderline-maudlin melodies of traditional Jewish music.


The album ends with "Giuliani \ber Alles," a nod to Jello Biafra and punk progenitors Dead Kennedys. Biafra and crew recorded "California \ber Alles" in 1980 as a send-up of Gov. Jerry Brown's administration and Zen fascism, a giant, political "Fuck you" to the establishment. This version updates the punk classic as a diatribe against New York's infamously thin-skinned mayor. But the cover is more than just a punk-throwaway. HNW gives the song a raucous workout that puts a virtuosic gloss on a hardcore anthem. It's a perfect ending, a combination of levity, radical political activism and a belief in the mystical power of music that underlies the entire project.

Seth Mnookin

Seth Mnookin is the co-director of the Graduate Program in Science Writing at MIT and he blogs at the Public Library of Science. His most recent book is "The Panic Virus: The True Story of the Vaccine-Autism Controversy" (Simon & Schuster). His Twitter handle is @sethmnookin.

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