Margot Leverett,
The Art of the Klezmer Clarinet
(Traditional Crossroads, 2000)

A lone clarinet wails an Eastern melody line like a poor man pushed to the limits of his endurance, crying and wailing over some inexplicable tragedy. That same clarinet produces a merry tune suitable for clapping hands and celebrating with a circle dance. While there may be other instruments sounding, the clarinet is cutting through them like a knife through warm butter. Margot Leverett is playing that clarinet.

She is playing klezmer, the Jewish music which, much like a patois in language, has a little bit of this and a little bit of that in it. The klezmorim, as they were called, were Eastern Europe's wandering Jewish musicians. They moved from village to village and from city to town playing weddings and other occasions as the audience demanded. The music is jubilant, human, danceable or soulful, woeful and sorrowful, like a loon on a lake at sunset, or a mourning dove's plaintive moan outside your window at the country house.

Unlike some of the other klezmer revival bands -- such as the Klezmer Conservatory Band, the Klezmorim, the Klezmatics and Kapelye -- Margot's music on The Art of Klezmer Clarinet is kept at a much more classical level. There is little of the raucous, however magnificent stage antics and elation of the Klezmer Conservatory Band, with that little tsatskela (cutie) Judie Bressler singing her Yiddishe heart out while classically trained musicians bring more than just new life to the music of their forebears.

Unlike the Klezmatics, there are no acid rock digressions, no studio effects, however tasteful and purposeful, however enhancing they may be. And unlike the Klezmorim, there is no "five guys sitting around a basement" kind of feeling to Margot's music. Nor is it like Kapelye's clean-cut studio klezmer, the stuff of Brooklyn and Long Island weddings and laughter with the old folks over a Sabbath meal of roast stuffed capon and gefilte fish. Rather, Margot's music is to all of this a baseline, against which the others are variants. She is the steady heart of klezmer as a traditional folk art with the dignity that only peasantry can bring you. With the exception of the occasionally raucous slide trombone played by David Harris, the entire collection is dominated by Margot's incisive clarinet.

We value the fine floral designs of ornate Chippewa Indian cloth or the weavings of Persian rugs. In much the same way, Margot pays more homage to the earlier generation of klezmer in this country -- for example, the great man himself, Dave Tarras. In fact, she studied with musicians who played with or at the same time period as Tarras, who is kind of the granddaddy of New World klezmer musicians. It was his records that were studied by the founders of the Klezmer Conservatory Band when the klezmer revival was in its infancy.

Margot, according to the liner notes, pays tribute to legendary clarinetists Naftule Brandwein and Shloimke Beckerman, recording stars in the 1920s and '30s "whose virtuosity and dazzling showmanship made the clarinet synonymous with klezmer for decades."

The selections include many familiar old tunes and two by Margot herself. "Schwesterel (Little Sister)" celebrates her friendship with a member of the Klezmatics, Alicia Svigals. It has the stateliness of Europe in it, and the respect of old friends who have been through much together. Contrasting with its somewhat solemn tones is Ruchelle's "Bulgar," with its vivacious, happy, faster-paced melody line. Similarly, there's "Freilicher Yontov (Happy Holiday)," another from the realm of celebratory high spiritedness and gaiety. There are also tunes she learned directly from the hands of klezmer maestros, such as Sid Beckerman and his wife May, who had played trumpet in a klezmer band of renown.

Fittingly, the CD is from Traditional Crossroads out of Greeley Square Station in the Big Apple. Because traditional, it is.

[ by John Cross ]

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