The 1970s brought a klezmer's renaissance, for reasons that are obscure. But ever since, the clarinet and violin-dominated folk style has been wildly popular, not only among those who have always loved it but among world-music and culture fiends as well. Today, one's klezmer needs can be met by all-women groups, gay, lesbian, teen, or regular old Jewish guys with white, patent-leather loafers and leisure suits.
Without a doubt, though, a most remarkable and beautiful thing is Klezcamp, a five-day celebration held in the Catskills, the other place where Jews love to cha-cha, fondly spoken of as the "borscht belt." Old and new klezmer fans and performers gather to share klezmer music, dance, Shabbat, Jewish language, arts, and food from the 24th until the 29th of December, a time when a retreat into the Jewish heart sounds about right for this Jewish soul.
Steven Bernstein isn't the only groovy to wholeheartedly embrace Jewish music in a jazz setting. Shirim, who played at a colleague's wedding recently, take klezmer to new places in a respectably worn suitcase, irritating die-hards by passing pure klez through their own souls, which are made of so many things, some klez, some not. The Boston-based collective, set out to--and did--master the wildly ornamental, heroic, and often frantic runs of klezmer proper.
After some measurable success and notoriety, Shirim's hungry musicians' souls--full of raucous free jazz, Charles Mingus, Cecil Taylor, and Jimi Hendrix--expanded beyond the Klezmer Within. Astonishing things came forth. Hence a new band, Naftule's Dream, named after klezmer ancestor Naftule Brandwein, was created to contain the aforementioned wildness, that it might mingle freely with tradition. Shirim was left intact to sustain hardcore klez fans who have not (yet) developed a taste for avant-jazz. Albums: "Smash, Clap!" (1998) and "Search for the Golden Dreydl" (1997), both on the Tzadik label.
I'll confess, I'm a klezmer novice, though klezmer has been playing in the background for as long as I can remember, badly executed on a clarinet at various Bar Mitzvahs and weddings, or because my parents met in the Catskills (my father worked for a butcher and made deliveries to my mother's schmancy bungalow). So there was Yiddishkeit, and now that klezmer has become mainstream, with many of its messengers not even Jewish, it's fascinating to see new strains--such as the Klezmatics, Klezmania, David Krakauer--and the old coexisting and shaping each other, in the same way newly refurbished South Beach Miami stands on top of (in some places), and next to, its pre-haute cuisine couture self. What would Naftule Brandwein have made of David Krakauer's acid-rock klezmer martinis?
Two of klezmer's most revered European masters are Naftule Brandwein and Dave Tarras. Klez aficionado Ari Davidow (proprietor of a most wonderful online klezmer resource www.klezmershack.com recommends "Naftule Brandwein: King of the Klezmer Clarinet" (Rounder, 1997) and "Dave Tarras: Yiddish-American Music, 1925-1956" (Yazoo/Shanachie Entertainment, 1992).
Until his recent death, Max Epstein--of the legendary Epstein Brothers Orchestra--reigned as the premier American klezmer master. Summoned out of retirement in Florida in 1991 by clarinetist Joel Rubin, he began to tour and record again with his brothers. In 1996, he starred in a documentary called "A Tickle in the Heart" and in 1998 received a National Heritage Folklife Award by the National Endowment for the Arts.