PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

Frank London's Klezmer Brass Allstars: Brotherhood of Brass

Matt Cibula

Frank London's Klezmer Brass Allstars

Brotherhood of Brass

Label: Piranha
US Release Date: 2002-03-05

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.

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.


15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.


Sixteen Years Later Wayne Payne Follows Up His Debut

Waylon Payne details a journey from addiction to redemption on Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, his first album since his 2004 debut.


Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.


Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.


Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.


Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.


The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.


British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.


Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.


​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.


The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.


Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.


How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.


Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.


CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.


Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.


While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.