You’ve heard Frank London play trumpet. Even if you’ve never heard anything by the Klezmatics; even if you never heard his Klezmer Brass Allstars’ first record, Di Shikere Kapelye; even if you’re unfamiliar with his solo album Scientist at Work, originally released in 1999 and re-released earlier this year after being remixed/messed up/fixed up by John Zorn; even if you haven’t heard the record he made this year with Lorin Sklamberg and Rob Schwimmer called The Zmiros Project; even if you’ve never listened to Jewish mystical or wedding-dance music at all — you’ve heard him play.
Because that was Frank London you heard as the funky bluesy trumpet player on L.L. Cool J’s “Goin’ Back to Cali”. No matter what you think of the song, you have to admit that that was one kick-ass solo. And if he could do that kind of thing for Rick Rubin, imagine what he could do on his own. But that’s just what he does on a regular basis for the Klezmatics, who are definitely America’s tightest band, and that’s completely what he does on the Zmiros record, and that’s just what he does here on this record, the second one with his own band.
But while there really are some amazing solos here, that’s not the purpose of this project. The Klezmer Brass Allstars are a ten-piece band who function as a unit; Susan Sandler plays a mean trumpet too, and there are three trombonists who could blast off at any time, and two amazing clarinetists, as well as a drummer and a dude who only plays bass drum. The tracks where they play together with no special guests are full of thousands of years of tradition but still sound as light and airy as a penthouse apartment. “Wedding in Crown Heights” is four minutes of madness, honking along in such beautiful syncopation that it sounds like rowdy ska — which is only interesting until you start thinking about the whole Rastafari belief system and the lost tribe of Israel thing, at which point everything gets really fascinating. And to listen to the contrast between the dirgey “Slow Hasidic Nign,” which sounds like a Dixieland funeral on Yiddish-oids, and its zippy flourishy flipside, “Fast Hasidic Nign”, is to hear the sadness and humor that are the deepest parts of Jewish culture. (Said the goyim who married into a Jewish family, but you know what I mean.)
But London and his group could do this in their sleep, and they’re after bigger game here, on a concept-album tip. They traveled around the world, tracing the history and travels of klezmer music, and ended up making a couple of important contacts. Two of these tracks were done in Cairo during a collaboration with the Egyptian group The Hasaballa Brass Band, and another five were recorded in Budapest with the Boban Marcovic Orkestar. You can go through their whole journey on the Piranha website: www.piranha.de, along with a huge weird essay about how brass bands have been used to communicate by Masons and Jews for centuries, which reads to me like a freaky prank meant to satirize right-wing conspiracy theorists, or so I hope. Me, I’m just going to talk about the music.
Which is stunning. The LP kicks off with “Freylekhs — Cocek #5”, done with Markovic’s Orkestar. Since the pieces are pretty much the same in both groups, it’s not surprising that they blend together; but isn’t it a little suspicious that they do it so well? You’d expect the odd fluff here or there, an uncomfortability between the groups, but there just isn’t one; they operate like one huge 21-headed machine of klezmer efficiency, with no discernable barrier between the Hungarian group and the American one. Part of this can be put down to both groups being filled with ruthlessly wonderful musicians, and another part can be attributed to the very nature of klezmer music itself. Jews were pushed all over Europe for hundreds of years, and their music has strains of everyone else’s music in it while still remaining firmly its own. Why shouldn’t London and Markovic be able to arrange a traditional song together, call it “Doin’ the Oriental”, and turn it into a 10-minute masterpiece? “Part 1” is a drony prelude full of drama and mournful horns; “Part 2” marches things out like there is no difference between New York and Budapest, like there hasn’t been any difference between the two ever, like no two places on the world can ever be separated. If you listen closely, you can hear Jewish music being celebrated and gently deconstructed and just as gently put back together. Plus, you can dance around to your kitchen with your kids to it.
For some reason, you might expect the songs with the Egyptian group to betray some stiffness — indeed, the two groups aren’t as integrated here as they are on the Markovic tracks. But that’s a good thing too. “Shish Kebab”, which is a traditional tune arranged by London and Hasaballa’s Mahmoud Fadl, keeps the dynamic shifting back and forth between the two groups, with one in the foreground and then the other. “Imayel Ya Khail”, the other tune here featuring Hasaballa, sounds like the best high school band in history, with snare drum wizardry and a sloppy-cool tradeoff between the two ensembles. The hook of this latter song will really never ever leave your head, so don’t freak out about it.
Also, don’t freak out if an extra track comes up at the end of the album. No idea what it’s called, but it’s got vocal samples, breakbeats, scratches, intentionally cheesy drum machines, and tons of interlocking klezmer horns everywhere. Someone named Socalled is credited in the liner notes for a “Special Meshuggah Mix” — while it won’t be burning up the dancehall any time soon, it sure does sound like Jewish/Hungarian/Egyptian garage/two-step/techno, and it sure does sound like the future and the past all wrapped in a nice piece of pita bread with some hummus and maybe a dab of fiery harissa sauce.
Look, there’s no way to describe this, so I’m going to stop trying. Suffice it to say that klezmer music is an international music that has influenced styles all over the world, and suffice it to say that Jewish culture has held itself together with this music for a very very very long time; and suffice it to say that you really have to hear this record to know what I’m talking about. It’s worth owning and loving and treasuring, and again proves that Piranha is one of the best and most ambitious world music labels in our part of the universe.
Frank London is the man. But then, you knew that, right? I mean, come on: The Klezmatics AND L.L. Cool J have no other degrees of separation.