Live – World Music: The Klezmatics

By Don Heckman

The Klezmatics have become, over the past two decades, one of the music world’s most dependably entertaining franchises.  Their performance at UCLA’s Royce Hall Thursday night provided plenty of reasons why their audiences have expanded well beyond the arena of klezmer music.

The Klezmatics

A substantial part of the program, in fact, was dedicated to songs they created to Woody Guthrie lyrics for the 2006 Grammy-winning CD, “Wonder Wheel: Lyrics by Woody Guthrie.”  Other selections ranged from numbers commissioned by the Pilobolus Dance Company and the punk references of “Man in A Hat” to invigorating Eastern European wedding music.

Despite the diversity of styles – many of which reflected the Klezmatics’ frequent creative partnerships with the likes of Itzhak Perlman, Chava Alberstein and Marc Ribot – the filter of klezmer, the sense of pride in the music’s Jewish heritage, was a constant factor.  This, despite the fact that the mixture of elements often threw seemingly unlikely genres into dauntingly creative encounters.

The wedding music numbers, for example, were rapid displays of startling virtuosity.  Fast-fingered passages — sometimes in unison, sometimes in unexpectedly harmonic, even contrapuntal, movement – were negotiated with ease by trumpeter Frank London, alto saxophonist/clarinetist Matt Darriau, violinist Lisa Gutkin and pianist/accordionist Lorin Sklamberg.  But when the improvised sections were opened up, both London and Darriau charged boldly into free-flying areas distinctly reminiscent of avant-garde jazz. At their best, they called up images of Ornette Coleman transforming a wedding party into a no holds celebration of new found possibilities.  Gutkin, on the other hand, often verged buoyantly into the rhythms of Celtic phrasing in her soloing, while Sklamberg’s accordion kept the freylich links alive and well.

The Guthrie material, on the other hand, walked the line between folk and klezmer via lyrics recalling the pleasures of Brooklyn Americana and, especially, of Mermaid Avenue, where Guthrie once lived.  Here, as elsewhere, Sklamberg’s cantoresque vocalizing was gripping, as was the very different, but very lyrical singing of Gutkin.  Bassist Paul Morrissett, who also doubled on the hammered dulcimer-like cimbalom, and guest star drummer Richie Barshay provided the propulsion to energize the evening’s broad array of sounds and styles.

Despite their versatility, however, despite the smooth, almost casual technical ease of their playing, what really made the Klezmatics’ UCLA Live program so compelling was the authenticity of the music’s emotional content.  Jewish at its roots, it was nonetheless music that reached out to a broader audience, continuously demonstrating the transcendent powers of music to push aside the often-restrictive boundaries of ethnicity, race, culture and spirituality.

One thought on “Live – World Music: The Klezmatics

  1. Dear IRoM,
    Thank you for making the correction:
    March 18, 2009 — irom
    The Klezmatics – March 6, 2009.
    The Klezmatics review posted on March 6 incorrectly identified the drummer as Richie Barshay. In fact, it was Aaron Alexander, who also performed for the band’s entire tour. iRoM regrets the error.


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