Isle of Klezbos

by Steve Weinstein
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Friday Apr 11, 2014
If you like klezmer music, you’ll love Isle of Klezbos!
If you like klezmer music, you’ll love Isle of Klezbos!  (Source:http://www.klezbos.com/)

The night I saw them perform at Joe's Pub, the group's press rep told me that Isle of Klezbos was more than a clever pun on klezmer, the music popular at weddings and other celebrations where Jews of Eastern European heritage gather.

The six women who make up this very modern take on a very traditional genre might be "mostly Jewish," but they all have the spirit of the ages in their souls. As for being "mostly lesbian," who cares? They're great -- and this from someone who can't stand klezmer music. Usually dominated by the swoops and whoops of a honking clarinet, considering its roots, klezmer has a surprising similarity to jazz.

Although it went into a steep decline as American Jews assimilated into mainstream society, it has had a revival in recent years. As younger musicians, both Jewish and gentile, have rediscovered it, it has taken its place in the wider genre known as world music. But it definitely had a profound impact on American popular culture.

It entered through the back door in the early to mid-20th century via Jewish musicians like George Gershwin (the clarinet solo that begins "Rhapsody in Blue" is definitely klezmer-influenced) and Irving Berlin (e.g., his 1910 "Alexander and His Clarinet"). It's no accident that the two greatest Big Band leaders, Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman, both played the clarinet.

At Joe's Pub, the music reflected the audience, which was a healthy mix of old-timers and hipsters. There were some more or less straightforward numbers, but then came the witty take-offs in which klezmer informed styles as varied as the blues, Latin rhythm (tango) and even a waltz.

The overall vibe was one of a Downtown jazz club inside of Sammy Romanian, the Lower East Side restaurant that is a to cholesterol what Le Bernardin is to haute cuisine fish.

The overall vibe was one of a Downtown jazz club inside of Sammy Romanian, the Lower East Side restaurant that is to cholesterol what Le Bernardin is to haute cuisine fish. This was one of those performances where the band on stage was definitely having as much fun as the audience. Drummer and bandleader Eve Sicular's song introductions were short and sweet.

As is usual at such gatherings, all of the individual band members got their solo bits. Pianist Shoko Nagai proved the most inventive, plucking strings one minute, tickling the ivories the next.

If this sounds a bit esoteric, it was actually good fun and a terrific night of music. I'm not sure pure klezmer won't continue to make me climb the walls, but as long as Isle of Klezbos is in the driver's seat, it goes down as easily as anything by Ornette Coleman or Dave Brubeck.

The hook for this group may be that they are all women -- about as anti-traditional as you can get. But that quickly became irrelevant. These ladies are damned good musicians, period.

Isle of Klezbos played on April 6 at Joe's Pub, 425 Lafayette Street in New York. For information on upcoming shows, call 212-539-8500 or visit http://publictheater.org. For information on the band, visit or www.klezbos.com. TO buy their new CD, "Live From Brooklyn," visit https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/live-from-brooklyn/id858022936

Steve Weinstein has been a regular correspondent for the International Herald Tribune, the Advocate, the Village Voice and Out. He has been covering the AIDS crisis since the early '80s, when he began his career. He is the author of "The Q Guide to Fire Island" (Alyson, 2007).


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