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Learning to Reed

Downtown Jewish jazz artists are coming out of the closet, blowing contemporary twists on klezmer riffs for enthusiastic audiences. Is anyone uptown listening?


Music of biblical proportions: John Zorn at the Knitting Factory.  

On a recent Sunday afternoon at Tonic, a former kosher winery on the Lower East Side, the doors opened to a near-stampede of elderly ladies from the Ukrainian National Home along with stylish, black-clad Gen-Xers and other assorted hipsters who all competed for seats. What drew this crowd together was David Krakauer's afternoon concert, part of Tonic's "Klezmer Sundays" series, featuring the clarinetist's sinuous performance of traditional tunes, mixed with modal jazz breaks and even a few funk beats. A week later, TriBeCa's Knitting Factory staged its annual Jewsapalooza festival, and a similarly pluralistic crowd piled in to catch a glimpse of Yossi Piamenta, who lived up to his billing as the Jewish Hendrix, and Hasidic New Wave, a tie-dyed ensemble who add dense layers of feedback to melodies dating, in some cases, back to the Middle Ages and beyond. A generation ago, such unlikely cultural conflations might have seemed like a gag in a Thomas Pynchon novel. Yet the raucous crowds showed just how much Jewish music has penetrated downtown, a phenomenon comparable in scope to the avant-garde loft scene of the seventies. Indeed, for the past few years, Passover has truly been a night unlike all other nights, with New Age Seders at the Knitting Factory led by the likes of Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson, and John Zorn.

Of course, Jews have been playing jazz at least since Benny Goodman was a thirties rock star. But to hear clarinetist Don Byron tell it, the debut of his Mickey Katz band in 1989 was the clarion call for Jewish musicians to finally out themselves. Before the Yiddish invasion of the past decade, Jewish jazz-makers tended to submerge their ethnicity. To be sure, a convert like Willie "the Lion" Smith -- who became a bar mitzvah in middle age -- was perhaps more enthusiastic about his Jewishness than Jewish-born musicians like Red Rodney, Dave Liebman, Steve Lacy, Stan Getz, Joshua Redman, and Lee Konitz, who once boasted that he swung pretty hard for a middle-class Jew from Chicago. But it was the black, dreadlocked Byron -- playing klez clarinet as convincingly as anyone since Nauftale Branwein -- who provoked the klezmer renaissance before moving on with his Afro-Cuban and hip-hop hybrids.

Why did it take so long for Jewish jazz practitioners to stage a coming-out party? There's something familiar in the notion of Jewish-American artists playing invisible: After all, it was a century after the publication of Moby-Dick and The Scarlet Letter that Jewish novelists like Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, and Philip Roth faced their roots, while earlier chosen bards like Nathanael West and Gertrude Stein preferred to keep mum on the Jewish question. And now, nearly a century after Buddy Bolden's unheard melodies first set Beale Street on its ear, Jewish musicians can finally be as Jewish as they wanna be.

John Zorn may be the most notorious example of the artist caught between the push of the avant-garde and the pull of ancient tradition. Zorn spent the first decade of his career literally making a lot of noise, his musings straddling Ornette Coleman, hard-core, spaghetti Western, and film noir scores, with even a stab at hard-bop standards. With his Kristallnacht project in 1992, Zorn became jazz's Philip Roth, irreverent and transgressive yet obsessed with Jewish identity and even tradition, at least on his own terms. Kristallnacht combined the screeching feedback and percussive attacks of his earlier work with delicate musings on Sephardic and klezmer melodies. The clash between the two modes, meant to dramatize the Night of Broken Glass, also revealed a midlife crisis for the composer, now 44: a violent collision of the younger, rebellious punk-rocker and the older, haunted prodigal. Like Roth, Zorn needs to spew much vitriol before he can allow the aching lyricism to creep through. But when it does, as on the Kol Nidre string quartet or everything on his two Bar Kokhba chamber-ensemble CDs, the music is so richly evocative that even his original compositions sound as though they'd always existed. Klezmer, a nineteenth-century secular music (despite its roots, legend has it, in the ancient chanting of the Torah), was already a wistful remembrance of liturgy past; Zorn's improvisatory neo-klez elegizes the elegy.

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