Clarinetist David Krakauer is a leading figure in New York’s thriving “neo-Klezmer” scene, a group of musicians who have been combining centuries-old Eastern European Jewish dance music with music in the African-American tradition — jazz, funk, hip-hop, rock. Though Krakauer has a Julliard background and a history of gigs with a series of legit classical artists, it wasn’t long before he started to learn to improvise within his cultural tradition and blend it with the larger improvised idioms in downtown New York, playing first with The Klezmatics, then with his own group, Klezmer Madness.
Bubblemeises, Lies My Grandma Told Me is the latest Krakauer project, and it is a pronounced klezmer thrust into The Music of Today. Krakauer is teamed up with Josh Dolgin — now a member of Klezmer Madness rapping and sampling as “Socalled” — who has previously recorded (I am not making this up) a hip-hop album called The Seder translating the traditions of the Passover seder into scratches, drum loops and raps. If there was any doubt that hip-hop has spread well beyond bullshit “gansta” tales, this is it.
The make-or-break track on this Krakauer/Socalled collaboration is surely the first, “Bubbemeises”, in which a classic klezmer melody is set to a hip-hop groove, adorned with samples (including portions of a bit on Jewish identity by the actor Herschel Bernardi), and interlaced with a smart-alecky rap consisting of the superstitions and advice you might have heard from your Jewish grandmother. The whole thing is jokey and catchy, maybe something that Weird Al Yankovic might have come up with as a parody of The Beastie Boys (Jewish rappers from Long Island, right?). Precious little else on the record is quite this obvious or goofy, which is probably a good thing.
While Krakauer’s clarinet is front and center on every tune here, the context and vibe is set by Socalled even when the effect is mainly artful. “B Flat a la Socalled” starts with a sample of several voices in a loop over a sampled beat — giving off an old school De La Soul vibe — before the clarinet melody rides on top. The effect is funky fun. As the live band takes over — Sheryl Bailey on electric guitar, Will Holshouser on accordion, Nicki Parrott on bass, and Michael Sarin on drums — things get even better, though Socalled doesn’t stop dropping in tasty samples. “B Flat” feels like a hip-hop production throughout, but the truth is that the band is what really heats things up. The track works both ways and builds to a hellacious climax.
Other tracks use the same ingredients to produce more random-sounding results. “Long… Short, Long (Les Colocs)” is a 50-50 klezmer/sampling blend, but it hobbles along without feeling natural or fun. “Bus Number 9999” is an eccentric story-song in which a guy calling himself “99Hooker” mopes about being on a bus with people he finds stupid (“I wish every bus was an express bus!”) and free associates about Death and the Maiden and drinking coffee. It might be funny, or it might just be a too-long goof.
When Klezmer Madness sticks to its tried and true — funky klezmer what rolls down the road like a grooving Yiddish fun machine — it’s hard to argue with. Check “The Electric Sher” and “Moskovitz and Loops of It” for a fine dose of how this is done. But on the Klezmer Madness MySpace site, Krakauer writes that Bubbemeises is “a whole new chapter in my life as a composer, a musician and a producer”. I’m not so sure. Klezmer Madness — without the jokey rapping and gimmick material — was making music worth sticking with. If the new chapter for Krakauer is about humorous raps about chicken soup curing the common cold, then what has really been gained?
Listeners with an urge to hear klezmer pushed in the direction of jazz will want to go back to the essential records by the New Klezmer Trio or even to John Zorn’s brilliant Masada quartet. Folks who prefer less jazz but plenty of fusiony world music groove with their klezmer will want to refer to the earlier Klezmer Madness records. Hip-hop fans with a klezmer hankering — are you out there? — may appreciate this disc more. But with a few cringe-worthy tracks, it’s hard to say that this direction is quite the revolution that Krakauer and Socalled want it to be.
My prescription: Bobbemeises could use some of that chicken soup.