Band will mess with traditional klezmer at music fest

Ben Goldberg insists he makes Jewish music, even though it might not sound that way.

The critically acclaimed Bay Area clarinetist has been pushing the envelope of what is considered "Jewish music" for years, in neo-klezmer bands such as Hotzeplotz, Klezmorim and the New Klezmer Trio.

Now, Goldberg brings a new six-piece ensemble, Twelve Minor, to Berkeley's Freight & Salvage Coffee House on Monday, March 6 as part of the 15th annual Jewish Music Festival.

The new band includes Miya Masaoka on the koto, a Japanese instrument with seven to 13 strings stretched over an oblong box. Rounding out the group are Carla Kihlstedt on violin, Rob Sudduth on tenor sax, Trevor Dunn on double bass and Kenny Wollesen on drums.

Twelve Minor's self-titled CD is described as a cross between formal composition and free improvisation. Goldberg is reluctant to characterize his own music, but he likens it to "modern, improvisational jazz."

And what makes this band worthy of being part of a Jewish music festival presented by the Berkeley Richmond Jewish Community Center?

According to Goldberg, the music embodies "the harmonies and rhythms of klezmer."

But it's not klezmer, at least not the "mainstream" klezmer people are familiar with today.

Goldberg makes the point that the historical record of "authentic" klezmer tunes, largely from the 1920s, is a result of record company promotion and not a reflection of the entire tradition.

He emphasizes that none of the old klezmer recordings was more than three minutes long. "What these musicians did when they got together on their own time, we'll never know."

Goldberg's earlier band, the New Klezmer Trio, was partly an attempt to broaden the definition of klezmer.

"We took klezmer and tried to find a more modern perspective," he explained. "We asked ourselves the question: What if klezmer had continued to evolve in the same way that jazz evolved? We tried to imagine the tradition if it had developed along similar pathways. Think about the difference, for example, between Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis or Ornette Coleman."

Rather than a specific "musical" description of klezmer, Goldberg offered an interesting, philosophical definition. "Klezmer is a lot about sadness and a kind of impatient, detailed investigation," he said.

One could argue the contrasting moods of klezmer (and perhaps Jewish music generally) are exuberance and mournfulness. These essential qualities are what Goldberg tried to capture and develop in The New Klezmer Trio.

"That mournful quality can be expanded and you can find a more rhythmically free context, a more open style," he said.

The New Klezmer Trio released two CDs in the early 1990s: "Masks and Faces" and "Melt Zonk Rewire." In 1992, New York saxophonist and avant-garde Jewish-jazz legend John Zorn heard the band and encouraged Goldberg to make a record with a larger group.

"Twelve Minor is the result of that," he said.

"I don't have a chip on my shoulder about this music in the same way I did with the New Klezmer Trio," Goldberg added. "In those days, we felt compelled to defend ourselves, to convince others that it really was Jewish music."

The genesis of Twelve Minor was Goldberg's explorations of klezmer harmony. Paradoxically, the clarinetist says that as he got deeper and deeper into klezmer, he became less interested in whether his collaborators were Jewish.

"I listen for the quality in their playing and for an undercurrent of sadness. Sadness certainly isn't limited to Jewish music; it has to do with depth and honesty. The world is a sad place."

So if Goldberg is making non-traditional music with non-Jewish musicians, is it still Jewish? Goldberg demurred.

"That's a question for others to answer."

Yet the ongoing debate about what qualifies as "Jewish music" is perhaps a surrogate for deeper questions (and anxieties) about Jewish identity in American culture.

As Goldberg points out, klezmer — a musical style thought of as entirely Jewish — is really an amalgam of Russian, Greek, Bulgarian and Gypsy folk music. In the beginning, there was nothing specifically or exclusively Jewish about it.

"My job is to play the most beautiful music I can," he asserted. "And any group I present will be a commentary on the material and how we deal with questions of trying to communicate it." Ironically, this "talmudic" approach to composition and performance may justify the label "Jewish" much more than the music itself.

"Let's just say it's beautiful music played by the greatest players in the area," Goldberg concluded. "And even I don't know what it's going to sound like on March 6."