David Krakauer is to klezmer what Eddie Palmieri is to salsa: a virtuoso grounded in — and deeply committed to — a musical genre that is an expression of his own cultural background, and an innovator who takes the genre places it has never been.
Palmieri, an extraordinary pianist and bandleader who brought sophisticated harmony and dazzlingly original arrangements to salsa and “Latin jazz”, at 77 has been around a lot longer than clarinetist Krakauer, who is 20 years younger. But the latter, since first coming to prominence as a member of The Klezmatics, has similarly expanded the horizons of his chosen form, combining Eastern European Jewish music with jazz, funk, rock, and hip hop. Since leaving The Klezmatics, he formed the bands Klezmer Madness! and Abraham, Inc., performed with symphony orchestras in America and Europe, and collaborated with the Kronos Quartet, the Emerson String Quartet, jazz pianist Uri Caine and composer David Del Tredici.
With his new release, The Big Picture, he’s crafted his most successful and boundary-smashing work to date. Krakauer and his terrific sextet interpret 12 songs from soundtracks by a diverse bunch of movie music composers — Marvin Hamlisch, Kander and Ebb, Randy Newman, Bob Merrill and Jules Styne, Wojciech Kilar, Sergei Prokofiev, Ralph Burns, Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock, and Mel Brooks. Krakauer picked these pieces because all were heard in movies that had a Jewish connection, whether thematic or because of the identity of the filmmaker or composer. “I’ve taken themes from iconic films with Jewish content and re-imagined them with a band of world-class musicians,” Krakauer has said.
It’s a great concept, whether or not it originated with Krakauer. According to the Jewish Daily Forward, “Krakauer’s manager, Steven Saporta, broached the idea of the clarinet player reinterpreting movies scores that have Jewish themes.” The CD notes, however, say that The Big Picture “is based on a concept created by Joseph Baldassare,” the new age/ethnic fusion composer who produced the album. Krakauer has an “executive producer” credit, and he arranged eight of the tracks.
The clarinetist and his collaborators — the much-in-demand jazz violinist Jenny Scheinman, guitarist Adam Rogers, keyboardist and accordionist Rob Burger, bassist Greg Cohen and drummer Jim Black, along with a few guests on one track — take on familiar themes and lesser-known material, from movies as varied as Sophie’s Choice, Life is Beautiful, Lenny, Avalon, The Pianist, Cabaret, The Producers, and Funny Girl.
Despite Krakauer’s comment about “Jewish content”, the connection is a bit tenuous in a few selections, all from Woody Allen movies: the jazz standard “Body and Soul”, used in Radio Days, Sidney Bechet’s “Si Tu Vois Ma Mere” in Midnight in Paris, and Prokofiev’s “The March”, in Love and Death. But regardless of the provenance of any particular piece, Krakauer and the band do wonderful and often surprising things with every one, re-inventing the material with soul, pathos, humor, and no lack of funkiness.
Take, for example, “Tradition”, from Fiddler on the Roof. Krakauer has said that at first he didn’t want to go near such an over-familiar number from a show he regards as “hackneyed”. But his take is not your, or any zaide’s “Tradition”. It’s four minutes of klezmer-funk, with the whole ensemble on high boil — Burger laying down propulsive piano chords, guitarist Rogers working up a wah-wah storm, and Krakauer wailing his ass off, seamlessly blending jazz phrasing and the characteristic klezmer intonations he has likened to his grandmother’s laughter.
Another standard from the Jewish American canon, “People”, gets a lovely, ruminative reading, led by Scheinman’s fiddle and Krakauer, who plays the opening bars on bass clarinet before switching to his usual horn. “Si Tu Vois Ma Mere”, by the sublime jazz clarinetist Sidney Bechet, one of Krakauer’s idols and main inspirations, rides on a strutting funk backbeat. “Wilkommen”, which (appropriately) opens the album, begins on a subdued note, with Burger on accordion playing subtle chords in waltz time, accompanied by Krakauer and Steinman, and then morphs into a rollicking New Orleans-style jazz-funk fusion — a most inviting welcome, indeed.
Two of the most emotionally potent selections come, unsurprisingly, from films about the Holocaust: the somber, prayerful “Moving to the Ghetto”, by Kilar, from Roman Polanski’s The Pianist and Nicola Padovani’s bittersweet theme from Roberto Benigni’s La Vita è Bella (Life is Beautiful). Krakauer and company bring deep feeling to these pieces while never milking them for their pathos — which makes them all the more affecting.
In February, Krakauer, with a different band, presented the music from The Big Picture in a mixed media, “cinematic concert” at New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage. This reviewer unfortunately missed the show, which sounded intriguing. Krakauer teamed up with the New York-based graphics outfit Light of Day, which, instead of using film clips, created new moving images for the production. Whether the visuals worked or not, the album’s marvelous and evocative music — created by a gifted auteur who works with a clarinet instead of a camera — offers a complete, and completely satisfying, experience on its own.