David Krakauer: The Big Picture

With his new release, klezmer clarinetist David Krakauer has crafted his most successful and boundary-smashing work to date.

David Krakauer

The Big Picture

Label: Table Pounding
US Release Date: 2014-02-18
UK Release Date: 2014-02-18
Artist Website

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.


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"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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