Perhaps I first heard the word "klezmer" from my Jewish grandmother, a word used disdainfully to describe itinerant musicians in her native Russia. But "klezmer," a term created from two Hebrew words and literally meaning "a channel for song," has come to embrace many meanings since its inception in the Jewish communities of 19th-century eastern Europe.
A recent bounty of new CDs reveals that klezmer is a musical style in dynamic flux, one coming to encompass classical, folk, rock, and jazz traditions while remaining faithful to its traditional roots.
Traditional klezmer combined eastern European folk melodies with rhythms drawn from military bands, dance, theatrical, and vaudeville orchestras. Ragtime syncopations can be heard in the first recordings, lending fuel to the notion that klezmer is a type of "Jewish jazz."
A century ago the lead solo instrument in a klezmer was the fiddle, immortalized in the Broadway hit, "A Fiddler on the Roof." The clarinet has assumed that role in this century. An outstanding compilation tracking klezmer's early development is Klezmer Pioneers 1905 - 1952 (Rounder), showcasing the style's two instrumental giants, clarinetists Dave Tarras and Naftule Brandwein. Both are experts in making their horns mimic the sounds of passionate laughing and crying.
Klezmer soloists have traditionally been great showmen, flashy demonstrators of bravura technique carried to dazzling heights. You can hear that quality in Itzhak Perlman's Live In The Fiddler's House (Angel). The classical violinist's new collaborative recording with four of the finest American klezmer bands (Brave Old World, The Andy Statman Klezmer Orchestra, The Klezmatics, The Klezmer Conservatory Band) revises the old style. Perlman's startlingly fast runs find rousing common ground with these young bands expanding klezmer through jazz improvisation and bluegrass picking.
Andy Statman, a superior clarinetist and mandolinist, has recently released Between Heaven & Earth: Music of the Jewish Mystics (Shanachie), a moving set of pensive jazz improvisations performed by his quartet, based upon the folk and religious melodies forming klezmer's foundation.
Other stunning klezmer experiments can be heard on a handsomely packaged book/CD set on the Ellipsis Arts label, Klezmer Music: A Marriage of Heaven and Earth and Klezmania: Klezmer For The New Millennium (Shanachie). The former includes Toronto's Flying Bulgar Klezmer Band, who punctuate their klezmer with hypnotic Arabic dance rhythms. The latter includes clarinetist Don Byron, an African-American jazz artist who proves you don't have to be Jewish to make klezmer captivating.
* The most complete source for klezmer recordings, books, and sheet music, as well as for other Jewish music, is Tara Publications, PO Box 707, Owings Mills, MD 21117. Phone: (800) TARA-400. Web site: www. jewishmusic.com