Sunday, October 28, 2007

Tour Over. And Out. And Susan Hoffman Watts.

Home at last after a week with Yale Strom and the Eldridge Street Klezmer Tour in upstate New York. It was a blast... I got to play with some of the best musicians in the Klezmer scene, many of whom I had not really crossed paths with before. Like my buddy Mark Rubin says - for a musician, what is important is not the gig... it's the hang, the chance to be with other musicians sharing similar interests and a similarly warped sense of musicians humor. For me, being on stage watching ex-Klezmatic Alicia Svigals treat her violin as an amplified rock instrument in the context of a Bukovina Jewish fiddle tune was equivalent to a year studying in a music conservatory.The winner of the 2007 Eldridge Street Klezmer Tour "Miss Popularity" award goes to Miss Susan Watts, trumpeter extraordinaire and general all-around party animator/animal/vegetable/mineral. She sings, she blows horn, but let this woman in front of a mike and she turns into a dadaist version of Sarah Silverman meets Miles Davis. Folks, this is a case of nature, not nurture. Or both. Susan's Grandfather was Jacob Hoffman, the 1920s Philadelphia klezmer bandleader whose klezmer xylophone solos appeared on many of the early klezmer reissue CDs. her Mom, Elaine Hoffman Watts, just won the 2007 National Endowment for the Arts Heritage Award for her preservation of the old klezmer drumming style.Susan grew up in a family atmosphere full of music, and she developed monster chops which, happily, she now applies to Jewish music instead of serving evil. Other interesting facts: she can eat horrible Litvak sweet gefilte fish, claiming she will eat "any Jewish food." Not even other Jews will eat "any" Jewish food. Ewwww. Here's a shakey bit of video taken during a sound check (in an acoustic hall without a sound system in Rockchester, NY) that illustrates the level of energy Susan can generate in her music: That's a pretty dangerous level of energy.Winner of the "Zen Tranquility" Award goes to Barry Mitterhoff, the mandolinist who often is seen playing in company of Jorma Kaukonen in the present line up of the legendary blues group Hot Tuna. Barry has exquisite taste - which is helpful when you are a mandolinist - and can spice up a slow Jewish hora with just the right amount of brazillian pepper or a discrete jazz chord. Barry plays a Gibson F-5 mandolin - a bit of wood and metal that is worth more than most family cars these days. That little instrument has a huge voice like... um... Susan Watts? (If anybody out there has a similar Gibson F-5 or, preferably, an oval holed Gibson F-4 that they would like to donate to me, for free, of course, please email me.The view from my battle station on stage. Rom accordion player Peter Stan and Barry Mitterhoff are lontgtime associates of Yale Strom and were always a rock-solid rythym section right on top of the shifting, improvised set list that morphed into a different show each night. The tsimbl seen is on loan from Pete Rushevsky, and is a small Romanian tsambal mic that was strung with uncomfortably soft phosphor-bronze strings... driving me nearly insane. I am now actually grateful for the steel strung tsambal I have at home - an instrument you can whack the hell out of and still call it a C minor chord.I've been off the road for almost a week... back in the Big City after a bit of exile in the boonies... and dang. I miss them already.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

General Strom's March, The Eldridge Street Campaign: Poughkeepsie, New York State.

It’s been a long and grueling week playing the back end of New York State with the Eldridge Street Klezmer Orchestra led by Yale Strom. Epic in scale, really.In a sweeping flank attack not seen since Sherman’s March across Georgia, thirteen brave Klezmer musicians crossed the hostile interior of upstate New York, leaving behind a trail of dried trumpet spit, broken strings, buffalo chicken wing bones, and the echoes of countless D minor chords in their wake. Rations were short. Distances were long. The espresso was crap. Erie County will never be the same.The strategy was to first take Poughkeepsie by surprise, because all Klezmoriim are taught from an early age that he who controls Poughkeepsie controls the entrance to the Gentile regions of New York State… The company set up camp in the Grande Hotel, strategically convenient to our later actions at the elegant Bardavon Theater, America’s oldest continuing entertainment venue.Yale knew that if our forces could take the Bardavon, it would strike fear in the enemies’ hearts and break their spirit, making for an easy campaign later, and possibly shorter sound checks. But first, Paul Brody, the Berlin based trumpeter and composer, was sent out to scout for provisions.His report affirmed what we already suspected – Poughkeepsie had been under occupation by a large and surprisingly friendly Mexican force. Using basic Spanish and coarse animal noises, Brody was able to make them understand our situation and friendly intent. The Mexican larders were surrendered without resistance, at only $4.95 for a plate of three fresh spicy pork tacos.Back at the Bardavon, we found that our Jews had already taken positions backstage and were refusing all offers of pork. Nothing could be done to make them eat it. However, these Jews were armed with clarinet and trombone, so we were in no position to argue. Our Jews steadfastly out-perform all other troops in the sonic production of a virtually inpenetrable "wall of sound"... and we would be ill advised to give them cause for grievance. So no pork.The Jews were identified as Yankl Falk and Rachel Lemish, both followers of the Frum Brigade, and sworn to severe and unwavering kosherity. While ostensibly pious and learned, the Jews nevertheless spit copiously into their instruments and make a fearful din by which the enemy is made to tremble and flee. In answer to all inqueries, their answer remains "It's a living."Our leader, Yale, bravely commanding the forces through a difficult Gminor manoeuver in sirba formation.Provisioner Brody releases air from his "axe", Chief Officer Peter Stan lets loose with an unstoppable barrage of deadly Romanian arpeggios, while tropper Jim Whitney stands guard on bass, ever ready lest a stray critic take a shot at our fearless commander, Yale, seen armed only with a violin. Due to unknown restrictions, however, our men were unable to find a bar open after 9:30 pm. A decision was then made to retreat as swiftly as possible under the cover of dawn to a less dry staging zone. Jean and Hanna, our logistics and intelligence brigade, quickly repositioned to a more defensible staging ground.Manning the videography base, our Mohawk Auxiliary grafitti specialist (First Class) Aram flashes the V for Victory sign (although, honestly, with Aram it could be an old gang signal...) and shows no ill signs of the grueling forced starvation march that carried us across New York's bare tundra to meet fate at.... the Battle of Fredonia!

Monday, October 15, 2007

Great Day Klezmer Concert at Symphony Space

Since Friday’s Great Day on Eldridge Street photo shoot I’ve been a part of two massive concert events in New York City. Last night was a gala event at Symphony Space on 96th St. and Broadway. In a classic case of “too much of a good thing” the gig was a bit long and … um… grueling for the musicians who had to check in during the afternoon for sound check. Starting at seven pm the list of performers pushed the concert to over four hours long, which is a bit much if you don’t want to lose audience members. The day started out with an impromptu street concert by Amsterdam’s Di Gojim at the Broadway street fair just outside Symphony Space. Inside, it was tuning and rehearsing for the likes of Alicia Svigals and Rachel Lemish, who did a complex and beautiful fiddle-trombone duet. Theodore Bikel opened the second half of the show with a bang – Theodore is about as big a celebrity as there is in Yiddish folk singing, well known from his career as an stage and screen actor. At 83, Theo counts as Jewish Music Nobility, and can still belt out the songs in a full, strong voice (although, as he pointed out, only in Yiddish folk music would you find a song with references to hemmorhoids - and he then proceeded to sing just that song.)He first appeared in The African Queen in 1951 (how’s that for film yikhes?) and played the captain of the Russian submarine in the 1966 film The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming! Bikel co-founded the Newport Folk Festival with Pete Seeger and released LPs of international and Yiddish folk song. He also played the adoptive father of Worf on Star Trek: The Next Generation which may be the coolest thing possible in the universe.
Joel Rubin is usually busy with research and lecturing, but he made an appearance playing with Pete Rushevsky accompanying on tsimbl. Joel is also one of the few clarinetists who has a mastery developed from first hand apprenticeship next to older generation musicians such as the fantastic Ray Musiker, seen below backed by Pete Sokolov on piano. Sokolov, however, had much praise for Don Byron's set, which highlated a truly inspirational doina composed by Ray's deceased brother.Ray - the fourth generation in a dynastic Klezmer family - taught music in the NYC school systems his whole life, and rediscovered himself in Klezmer music after retirement. “We never called it ‘klezmer’” said Ray after the show, “Klezmer was a word for the lowest of the low, the guys who played on the street for coins. We just called ourselves musicians” Hmmm... I don't know whether to be proud or embarrassed... I haven't played for coins on the street in some time, though. My Mom, Pop, and Sis came to the show (I don’t often get to play stateside. Pop missing from photo because he was late parking the car due his lifelong mission to never park in a paid parking garage.) Even so, we had to split before the finale… it was after eleven and I had to pick up a tsimbl from Pete Rushevsky’s place nearby to play as we take the Eldridge Street tour on the road in upstate New York. Thanks, Pete!

Friday, October 12, 2007

A Great Day on Eldridge Street!

In 1957 photographer Art Kane collected the top Jazz musicians in New York and had them pose for a photo which went down in history as "A Great Day in Harlem." Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonius Monk, Duke Ellington, you name them, they were in that photo. In a single image,. Kane managed to define an age, an aesthetic, a feeling. As they say in German, a zeitgeist moment…. Fifty Years later, Klezmer musician, photographer, film maker, and writer Yale Strom decided to do a similar photo op to celebrate the renovation of the Eldridge Street Synagogue on New York's old lower east side... which is in today's east Chinatown. To this end Yale and the Eldridge Street Foundation folks (especially the amazing and energetic Hanna Griff) found the funding to bring together over 200 Klezmer musicians who were involved in the revival and survival of a musical genre which morphed from the signature music of Yiddish speaking Jews into something which was probably never intended to be an identity symbol for Jewish culture: Klezmer music. (Above: Yankl Falk, Stephanie Tarras, Jim Whitney and Don Byron) Now, truth be said, Yale’s take on the history of the revival of klezmer isn’t universally accepted, so some of the Klezmer revival Big Guns chose not to be in attendance. Ill health kept others home, while special guest - Israeli clarinetist Musa Berlin - was not granted an American visa for reasons known only to Homeland Security. Nevertheless, a lot of the machers did show up, at the unworldly hour of 11am on a Friday morning in the wholesale Bok Choy district of east China Town. Below we see Don Byron (formerly of the Klezmer Conservatory Band and now one of the world's greatest jazz clarinet/reed innovators), Annette Ezekiel of Golem, fiddler Alicia Svigals, drummer Eve Sicular, the legendary Klezmer drummer Elaine Hoffman Watts and her daughter, trumpeter Susan Watts, Yiddish poet and teacher Beyle Shaechter Gottesman, and Ray Musiker. Dignitaries included actor/singer Theodore Bikel, whose records were the lifeline to Yiddish song for the 60’s generation (he's the distinguished chap in a black fisherman's cap and scarf, smack dab in the center. KCB singer Judy Bressler just behind him.)
Pete Sokolov and Ray Musiker provided the link to the later klezmer Yiddish classical bands of Solomon Secunda, Abe Schwartz, and Dave Tarras. Eve Sicular, Dave Krakauer, and Hankus Netsky in the back. Dave Tarras could not be there, but his DNA made an appearance in the form of his talented great-granddaughter Stephanie Tarras, who plays clarinet in the Columbia University Klezmer Band, seen behind interloping amazing-ace klezmer fiddler Jake Shulmen-Ment. OleHashulem.. she even looks like her Great-Grandfather! Well, considering that I once met Dave Tarras... G-d bless genetics...“Revivalists.” You can’t control them. You can't talk sense into them. Beware. Frank London and Lorin Sklamberg representin'… the sign says "Klezmatics." Up front is elusive Global Village record label director Mike Schlessinger, located just behind Yankl's ear.
The noisy assemblage then marched down to Seward Park... in full blast. Chinatown rarely sees anything as noisy as this. (Art Bailey on squeezebox, Barry Mitterhof on mandolin, various Dutchmen blowing into metal things)A jam session and park concert ensued... but it is not over. I'll be playing a concert tomorrow with this mass of klezmorim, and then going on tour in New York State with them. I'll keep you informed while on the road... Buffalo! Rockchester! Freedonia! Here we come! But wait! No Jewish event is complete without a Chinese restaurant... and east Chinatown is THE PLACE for oddball noodle soups... Super Taste Restaurant... right next to the Eldridge St. Shul... Lang Zhou style hand pulled noodles... better than the Lang Zhou in Bpest!! Four bucks for Beef noodle soup! Six bucks for the house special beef soup - a cauldron of rarely encountered cow parts swimming in broth and noodles. Fiddler Steven Greenman - who was a vegetarian when I first met him - let me have his tripe bits. When Klezmorim die, they come here instead of heaven.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

New York, Just Like I Pictured it....

I'm now in New York getting ready for Yale Strom's A Great Day on Eldridge Street Klezmer Tour. I'll be in the US for a couple of months... Getting to the US is best done carrying absolutely nothing at all, preferably stark naked, for reasons of security. At Ferihegy Airport in Budapest I was relieved of the cimbalom tuning key in my computer bag, which was deemed a possible weapon... "Do exactly as I say or this C# will be flat in relation to the A in the bass... now!" This has unexpected positive attributes as well - now I won't have to play on the Rushevsky's borrowed cimbalom on the Klezmer tour which brought me here. If you can't tune it, you can't play it.
Having been relieved of my only tuning device, I was free to travel... of course, at London Heathrow security measures are even tighter than at Ferihegy, but at leats it is Jolly Olde Blighty, mustn't grumble...Leave your liquids and lighters at the desk please, no Shoe Bombing nutcases allowed on the flight. With four hours to spend in travel limbo I scoured Terminal four for something approaching an affordable lunch. I passed on the Seafood Bar, knowing that if I ever travel through here with Fumie (who hates Heathrow Airport) I would, as punishment, have to mortgage my Moldavian bagpipes to feed her...But smack dab in the middle of the Terminal was what seemed to be a real London style pub... dirty tables, footer on the telly, barkeeps who can't pronounce consonants, and beer on tap at normal London pub prices, which is to say about 2 Pounds 25p a pint. Pub Grub in transit! If you have ever watched Gordon Ramsey's Kitchen Nightmares you will know that the English are attempting to reform their bad reputation for cooking. They try using Mediterranean ingredients and "Asian influences" and pretty soon nobody eats any of it at all and they have to call Gordon Ramsey in to scream at them and call them wankers and teach them how to make simple, decent English pub food. Like Fish and Chips...
Big fat "chips" drenched in malt vinegar... and since they know a New York accent when they hear one they kindly served the peas in the non-mushy style. Given that BA's dinner offering was "Shepherd's Pie" (ground beef in a light slime sauce covered with indelicately microwaved mashed potato) I am glad I wolfed this down when I had the chance. Other offerings in Heathrow are more attuned to the average Saudi Sheik than to Klezmer musicians on a budget... how about some caviar at 99 Pounds a tin? (Pounds are like dollars used to be... i.e., money. Just multiply by two to reach a heartbreaking dollar amount.)So now I am comfortably enthroned at my parent's home in Teaneck New Jersey, located a mere seven kilometers outside of Manhatten and historically famous for its role in the American Revolution.Teaneck is the New York exurb most accurately described by the term "Hymietown" which was made popular by the Reverend Jesse Jackson during his suicidal 1984 presidential run. As seen here in an old Saturday Night Live clip played by Eddie Murphy... a neighbor who lives about five miles away in Englewood...

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Visit to Bihor

After playing in Sigisoara we made a quick visit to Bratca, a large village in Bihor County, in Transylvania. As I wrote, we won't be able to visit the market at Negreni (Fekete To) next weekend so we dropped in on Mircea Rostas, who is a maker of the trumpet-fiddle hybrids known as vioara cu goarne. The visit turned into a session of learning how to construct these folk-level resonator fiddles, and in the near future I will post a full documentary series of photos about how they are made. Mircea, however, had grown his beard in mourning (as is the Gypsy custom) for his recently deceased brother, so he wasn't in the mood to play as much.We arrived in Bratca as the Rostas family was inviolved in some furious cheese grinding. A huge wheel of hard salty cheese was being cut up and forced theough a grinder, and then jarred for later use in mamaliga cu brinza. This wasn't brinza, however, but sheep kash. There are a lot of Slovak settlements in the higher mountain villages of Bihor, and we were surprised to learn that Mrs. Rostas was raised up here in the mountains speaking Slovak, although she has forgotten most of it. We had to head back to Cluj so we took the road that runs between Oradea and Cluj. Just as the road rises into the mountain passes there are a series of road houses serving food aimed at long haul truck drivers. We stopped at the Perla, one of the first on the approach from Oradea. Remember what I said about Transylvanian cuisine being focused on quantity? Here is the most expensive menu item, 6 Euros, smoked ham hock and beans (ciolan cu fasole) and draga mea, it was good. I added a few new videos to my youtube user page... including this, with Nicu Rostas.
And this: