East Bay musicians strive to create post-klezmer mix

When klezmer rose into the Jewish mainstream, Ben Goldberg, an Oakland clarinetist, moved from the center of the movement to its periphery.

Now, he and collaborator-composer John Schott, a Berkeley guitarist, are inventing a Jewish music that does not stick to the sound of old-time Jewish standards.

Their latest album "What Comes Before," released this past March, has decidedly Jewish packaging, but contains almost no immediately recognizable Jewish musical content.

The music is spacious, slow and meditative, but the connection to Jewish themes is left to the listener's speculation.

"So much of Jewish cultural events tacitly need to be safe, and to evoke warm communal feelings among the audience. This music isn't going to do that," Schott said.

Goldberg will perform with Schott's Ensemble Diglossia on Friday, Sept. 25 in San Francisco. On Nov. 8, Schott will perform in the San Francisco Jazz Festival's celebration of "Radical Jewish Culture" at Congregation Emanu-El.

Goldberg, 39, is a veteran of the local Jewish music scene, playing in the mid-'80s with Klezmorim, one of the first big klezmer groups.

Yet Klezmorim took the Old World tradition too literally for him.

"At a certain point, the idea of sounding like something from [the past] started to seem like a straitjacket," he said. "That group had a shtick. Everything was choreographed. There were little skits. It was like vaudeville. That was really not my thing."

He started New Klezmer Trio as a kind of guerrilla klezmer band, to wrest the music into a modern sound.

But when he began to experiment on klezmer, audiences, for the most part, did not follow.

The music sounded like klezmer after a hangover. Goldberg's clarinet melodies were swallowed or shrieked; their rhythms were squelched or ran awry.

"Once we played at the San Francisco JCC. What a bad idea," Goldberg said.

"At that concert, an irate audience member came running back stage. He was furious; he couldn't believe we advertised it as klezmer music and played what we played. [Drummer] Kenny Wollesen and [bassist] Dan Seamans are not Jewish. This guy went backstage and came right up to Kenny and Dan and yelled `goyim have more soul than you!' We never got over that," Goldberg said, laughing.

The New Klezmer Trio was too ethnic for the jazz audience, lacked the acoustic guitar sound that would appeal to the folk music crowd and was not Jewish enough for the Jews.

"To me, what we were doing was klezmer music. It didn't sound like that to other people, especially [those] for whom klezmer meant a taste of the Old World," he said.

Schott, 32, came to maturity on the guitar just as the klezmer wave was hitting its peak in the mid-'90s. But instead of turning to klezmer, he began creating his own blend of Jewish music that record stores would not file under the ethnic heading of "Jewish."

In 1996, Schott premiered a new work, "In These Great Times," composed for a jazz trio with guitar and adding a tenor to sing texts from Kafka, Karl Kraus and Yiddish writer Jacob Glatshteyn.

Schott's composition was envisioned as Jewish music, packaged as Jewish music, but not klezmer. It was "Radical Jewish Culture" according to John Zorn, a Jewish saxophonist and composer in New York, who released Schott's record on his label, Tzadik.

The label, begun in 1995, includes "Radical Jewish Culture" as one of six subsections. Tzadik also carries two New Klezmer Trio albums.

"The first record I made for Zorn's label was, in a sense, my response to the series `Radical Jewish Culture,'" Schott said. "It was a critique of what had been done on that label up to that point.

"I didn't want the music to be about the Holocaust. I didn't want it to be about the musical modes that are associated with klezmer music. I just felt that way of signifying `Jew' musically was not going to work for me. That's not my music."

Schott's composition features a dense mixture of jazz-styled interactions between instruments with the narrative speed of a classical piece.

Goldberg also has been heavily influenced by jazz, as well as improvisational music, which he began studying in the '80s when he was still playing with Klezmorim.

New Klezmer Trio broke up in the mid-'90s. By then, Goldberg had been playing and recording with Schott for several years in a number of bands.

Their most recent release together, "What Comes Before," is on Zorn's Tzadik label.

As Schott and Goldberg are just beginning their work, it seems that while the klezmer wave may be coming to an end, Jewish music is not. The evidence is in the young audience at Goldberg and Schott's performances.

Schott said the most resistance to the music comes from klezmer audiences that want to clap along and mumble the melodies.

Goldberg said such purism seems to contradict the spirit of klezmer. "When they say pure klezmer music — well, it's not, it's Gypsy music, Romanian tunes — there is nothing pure about that. It's just a mishmash."

Goldberg and Schott's new Jewish music is not trying to rend apart the old tradition or create an old vs. new dichotomy. Rather, the musicians are trying to move beyond nostalgia, to investigate, appreciate and reinvent tradition.

"I don't consider what I am doing today is `Radical Jewish culture.' I don't want any label on it," Goldberg said.

"If my music is to be valid, it has to be valid next to John Coltrane's music. I don't want to be hiding in a Jewish ghetto. I just want to have Ben Goldberg music. It's going to involve all the things that I love and everything I've been through."