Diaspora Blues – Steven Bernstein and the Sam Rivers TrioThe Twelve Tribes – David Krakauer’s Klezmer Madness!
Label Blue 6637
Steven Bernstein and David Krakauer are two New York musical powerhouses
who have recently released new albums of their explorations into their
Jewish roots. With vast experiences in other genres (Bernstein in jazz,
Krakauer in classical and jazz) they take Jewish melodies out of the
synagogue and catering hall and turn them into something fresh and vibrant
— worthy of a club or concert hall.
There are two primary branches of traditional Jewish music: cantorial music
for praying, and klezmer music for partying and dancing. Bernstein
revisits the first, Krakauer the second. Both albums fall under the "jazz"
umbrella, The Twelve Tribes far more loosely.
Diaspora Blues, a follow up to Diaspora Soul (also on Tzadik),
reverential and hypnotic, slipping into and out of grooves, stretching out
into free jazz noise and then finding its way back to melody again. Firmly
rooted in modal jazz, it is mellow but chugging, strong yet troubled,
ethereal but grounded. Rainsticks, rattles and breathy noises all
contribute to the contemplative atmosphere. On the Tzadik website, it is
aptly labeled "free jazz to soothe your soul".
In addition to Bernstein on trumpet, it features extraordinary performances
by the legendary Sam Rivers on tenor and soprano saxophones and flute, Doug
Matthews on acoustic bass and bass clarinet, and Anthony Cole on drums and
tenor saxophone. Some of the melodies are taken from old recordings of the
legendary Cantor Moshe Koussevitsky, others were composed by Bernstein.
The tracks flow into each other smoothly creating a harmonious whole. One
highlight is the glorious bass clarinet on "Aveenu Malkenu" a traditional
Jewish prayer melody set as never before, with free saxophone doodles
running all around the melody, the bass clarinet chugging along underneath
the whole time, until it leaves the ostinato and the whole thing descends
into mellow chaos before finding the melody again. Some of the original
compositions, such as "Chant", lose the Jewish flavor, but are nonetheless
enjoyable free jazz explorations.
The last song is the remarkably harmonious "Ribino Shel Olam": four voices
called together, their personal expression unified in the
same prayer. And the album ends not with a perfectly tied cadence, but
with the suspension of a dissonant chord filled with mystery and
The Twelve Tribes, Krakauer’s follow-up to his Label Bleu debut, A
One (which was preceded by two albums on Tzadik, Klezmer NY and
Madness) starts the party with a funky drum and bass groove. Krakauer's
distinctive clarinet enters with a twisted melody line that somehow retains
Jewish character. The album is a mix of traditional melodies and
Krakauer's own compositions. They are all punctuated with Krakauer's
fascinating bag of clarinet pyrotechnics and wanky, bubbly electric guitar
provided by Kevin O'Neil and Roger Kleier.
"The Gypsy Bulgar" brilliantly encompasses a whole range of emotions, from
mystery to joy to orgasm to loss to peace. The album takes a turn towards
spookiness and mystery with the fifth track, "Queen of the Midnight Fax",
followed by "The New Year After", a personal exorcism of the demons of
2001 (for Krakauer, not just the obvious, but also the death of his
mother). This, I suppose, could be akin to the part of the wedding where
the old drunken uncle gets up and starts screaming at the blissful couple
about how unhappy they'll be. It's also where the Krakauer and Bernstein
albums find the most common ground, particularly with Bernstein's
"Blessing", a twisted take on the traditional Hanukah prayer melody, with
punchy, staccato trumpet and lots of noisy demons. Krakauer then jumps
back into full-on party mode with "Bulgar".
The last track, "As If", is instrumental Jewish hip-hop, a collaboration
between Krakauer and DJ Socalled. A coda, it stretches off in a very
different direction from the rest of the album, a reworking of sampled
scraps from the past with Krakauer wailing on top.
My main complaint with The Twelve Tribes is that, compared to seeing
Krakauer's band perform live, the whole thing seems to fall a little
flat. But that may just be because the energy of a Krakauer live
performance is so phenomenal.
If Bernstein's album is a complex, aromatic tea, then Krakauer's is several
shots of slivovitz or harsh Ukrainian vodka. Both have a strong melodic
focus. Krakauer's is more demanding of your attention, whereas Bernstein's
holds up to scrutinized listening but can also quite happily wallow as
impetus for deep personal meditations or as a backdrop to set a mellow
mood. Both are fine expressions of radical Jewish culture at its best.