David Krakauer and his Acoustic Klezmer Quartet: “Musical Instruments” in Queens at Dusk – A Concert Review

Forest Hills is a beautiful, throwback community deep -but not too deep- into Queens, New York. The planned neighborhood was begun over a century ago. In contrast to much of New York City, Forest Hills is verdant and jealously protected. Even the streets are private. The cozy venue for the concert May 1st, hosted by Musica Reginae, was The Community House at the Church-in-the-Gardens. Parking passes were issued for concert goers to avoid strictly enforced towing. I was praised for my wisdom for taking the subway to avoid trouble. My secret is that I don’t own a car.

Do you know Klezmer music? I have heard it described as polka with “more garlic”. Lest you think I am casting aspersions, polka was the dominant popular music all over Europe in the 19th Century much like rock and roll dominated the 20th. Polka reached far and wide, and had a perfect “portable” ensemble. I have not studied the origins of Klezmer other than listening. The inter-song banter from the band leader, clarinet player, and emcee, David Krakauer, points to Eastern Europe as the source with a dominant presence in Romania and Ukraine. It is further distinguished from the popular music of it’s day by favoring minor keys and tweaked scales. In addition to polka’s band -accordion, tuba, trombone and clarinet with bass drum and cymbal- there is often a violin involved.

David Krakauer and his Acoustic Klezmer Quartet during the second set.

This quick caricature of Klezmer does not really set the stage for the concert that was played. The music reflected Krakauer’s take on the ensemble and genre. The band leader wailed on clarinet as the melody instrument. Michael Sarin was the rhythmic foundation on a paired-down drum kit featuring heavy use of floor tom. He also had a suspended cymbal just past the high hat which he attacked from a crouch. Jerome Harris contributed on a large acoustic bass guitar. He was the only member to sing and only on one tune Tribe Number 13; a florid, wordless melody without words which blossomed, unexpectedly and effortlessly, into multi-phonics – singing more than one note at a time which causes whistling and adds sparkle to the sound. In an evening of surprises, this was one of the most unexpected. Will Holshouser rounded out the band by playing accordion, acting as the orchestra. He also composed a bulgar (The Dusky Bulgar), a traditional song form and dance, which was on the set list.

Although the genre was stretched and played with, there was a lack of pretention and considerable ease. Think of the musical permutations affected by Piazzola through tango, Richard Galliano with musette or Bill Monroe with traditional mountain string bands. Krakauer described himself mid-concert as mostly “assimilated” in his youth and uninterested in Klezmer until his early thirties. The New York music scene was having a Klezmer and yiddish revival in the 1980’s in general, perhaps that is what piqued his interest. He revealed through his anecdotes throughout the evening that he was able to study the genre through early recordings and by eventually traveling to meet the old masters who were still around.

But what of the playing?! The playing was amazing from every performer. The sonic palate was varied and never dull. There were square grooves and funky grooves. Traditional Klezmer barn stormers and the self-described “Jackson Pollack”-like genre deconstruction of Tribe Number Thirteen. The bass fills were immaculate; the accordion hits sparse and perfect. There was so much space in the sound from every player which I admire and something I attempt in my own playing. Waiting for Julian, a drum solo by Michael Sarin, spoke, dazzled, and shimmered until… an interruption from a cell phone message. He smiled, and repeated the tones on drums (can you do that?) and incorporated the theme into the rest of the solo. And Krakauer…man! can he play clarinet. He is a true master of the instrument.

Throughout the concert, the room was full of bobbing, bopping heads. Women were half dancing in their seats the entire time and one lady in the back couldn’t restrain from dancing during the final number. I would love to see this band given the freedom to play for a room full of dancers.

David Krakauer and his Acoustic Klezmer Quartet- one of the best bands I have seen- and I have been on a live music tear lately. Master musicians, all. Although they have been around for nearly two decades, they haven’t played together for a year and a half! It’s a pity that I can’t convince you to catch a show over the next two weeks of their run. May 1st was a one-off performance. And amazingly, this isn’t Krakauer’s only project. Catch them when you can.

An Album Review: Lieder/Canciones by sTem

There are four pieces played on Lieder/Canciones by the contemporary classical trio sTem. Each piece is distinct. Two are commissions (Das Stunden-Buch and Preludio de un Diamante) and two are not (Der Hirt auf dem Felsen and Escúchame). Two are sung in German; two in Spanish. Both commissions are worthy touchstone recordings. The Schubert, new to me, showed off echo effects throughout for which it is probably famous. The final track Escúchame is a solid arrangement of an opera aria. Echoes are reflected there as well. This is one of the few obvious ties in the album other than the language bundles.

The most successful piece opens the album- Das Stunden-Buch, a commision from Rex Isenberg. Being very cool and mid-century it is a Sondheim-flavored miniature. Because it is sung in German, I had to rely on the work as a music event as it can’t speak to me any other way. This piece was a smart way to open the album as it best shows off the strengths of the ensemble: reliable piano playing by Sophia Vastek, remarkable clarinet from Eric Umble, and nice high-register control by the soprano Meagan Amelia Brus. This album opener successfully took me somewhere. I felt I was sharing an emotional journey- a foreign movie with no subtitles. Isenberg’s brocade sound world definitely has vaseline on the lens.

[Affiliate Link]

Unfortunately, each piece is best enjoyed individually. The album doesn’t take me on a ride like the individual pieces do.  At the end of listening, I wanted more shock and contrast. Not drama- I think the music has plenty of that built in. I would like to see the band chew the scenery a little more. They clearly have good taste in commissions and repertoire. I would like to see that taste slip a little when it comes to playing. Umble comes close at times with Klezmer chirps and breathy sighs. If the listener descends from the pastoral longings of the nineteenth century alps to the existential questions raised in a city like twentieth century Bogota, they had better know they are somewhere else musically and emotionally. Overall, I would like to hear bigger contrasts between the works.

The recording itself was the biggest problems that I had in listening to Lieder/Canciones. Das Stunden-Buch was recorded a little too close for my taste. It sounds as though the musicians are inches from you. I would have preferred a little more aural space. About nine minutes into the Schubert, Umble plays solo and reverb seems added out of nowhere. The mix is off kilter on many of the tracks. Again, in the Isenberg, the voice is suddenly shoved to the background while the clarinet comes to the fore. Elsewhere, I felt the piano was panned flat, but not fully, with the clarinet and voice laid in straight lines left and right and much too close.

This album would probably be most interesting to a soprano looking to spice up a recital or a clarinet player who wants to find an ensemble work to show off his chops. It has been out since September of 2016. It is well worth the $10 asking price at Bandcamp.

This is my first album review for I hope to offer more in 2017!