One of the things I resent most about recent trends in popular music, and the technology that drives it, has been the use of bass as a weapon instead of an instrument. Every time one of those cars drives by with the bass cranked so high that you can hear its doors rattling in the frame (a friend who worked in an auto body shop told me they would get three cars a week on average needing doors re-hung or with frames out of alignment due to the damage caused by their sound systems) I can't help think what a horrible legacy for the instrument of Charles Mingus. Subtlety and delicate phrasing have been replaced with ear-shattering assaults that passes for keeping time. How is that music?
Thankfully there are still those out there who serve as reminders that the bass is an instrument to be reckoned with and are able to create music that won't leave you bleeding from the ears. All one needs do is listen to the new disc released by bassist Jim Guttmann, Bessarabian Breakdown, to be reminded of what the instrument is capable of. Using the klezmer music of Eastern European Jews as his basis (Besserabia, now part of Moldova, lies between Russia, Romania, the Ukraine, and the Black Sea and before WWll had a Jewish population of over 200,000), Guttmann and those accompanying him on the disc have come up with some rather surprising results.
Certainly one will hear the clarinet and violin so often associated with klezmer music, but not only have they added some new twists and flavours to those arrangements, they have created some successful mixed marriages with Latin and contemporary jazz. I have to admit when I read about klezmer/Cuban, or Latin, in the press material accompanying this disc, I thought it was a typo or somebody had dropped a couple sentences from another press release into the one for this album. Even after assuring myself that it was indeed referring to the disc I had in front of me, I couldn't wrap my head around the idea of Latin klezmer music. However, listening is believing, and once you've heard "Descarga Gitano" and "Cuando El Rey Nimrod", like me you'll no longer have any doubts as to what's possible.
While the first is a wonderfully orchestrated piece complete with horn section, saxophone, guitars, Latin percussion, and Coro ensuring it has that full sound we've come to expect from the style of music, somehow it also retains something of the plaintive air characteristic of klezmer music. "Cuando" on the other hand is a simple trio featuring Guttmann's bass accompanied by drums and guitar alone. For those who have forgotten what a bass sounds like, how a stand-up bass or acoustic bass can be the lead instrument in an ensemble simply because of the player's ability and not because of the amount of noise the instrument is making, this song will be a treat.
While Guttmann had stepped forward earlier on the disc in their rendition of Johnny Mercer's "And The Angels Sing", sort of a delicate popular number along the lines of some by Cole Porter or Nat King Cole, I think that "Cuando" allows him to show off his versatility as a player and musician to greater advantage. Here the phrasing is far less sentimental, with more depth of feeling contained in the notes than in the earlier piece, and Guttmann's playing is able to capture all the nuances needed for us to appreciate its complexity. If you thought somehow that this was a fluke, wait for his solo turn, the final cut of the disc, "Firn Di Mekhutonim Aheym."
Aside from the Mercer tune, the other ten tracks on the disc are arrangements of traditional songs. While it's interesting to hear old tunes being given new arrangements in order to see what if anything more can be expressed with them, I still found some of the older, more traditional versions of the songs touched me the deepest. "Sadegurer Chusidl" (Take Off That Shmatte) with its mixture of violin and accordion, supported by guitar, bass, and percussion, captures the simplicity of the original music, while also bringing to life the layers and textures that existed in the music to begin with. There is grief buried in this music best revealed by the intimate setting created by the smaller ensemble. While it's easy to sentimentalize the fiddle with thoughts of Hollywood movies, listening to Mimi Robson play on this tune and others, one can not fail to appreciate how she captures both the joy and sadness of Jewish life in Eastern Europe.
That's not to say pieces like the disc's opening "Philadelphia Sher" or the title track "Bessarabian Breakdown" aren't wonderfully exuberant pieces that are a joy to listen to or are lacking in emotional depth. It's just when there are more instruments playing and the sound whirls around you like dancers, the excitement generated by the performance outshines any one emotion that might be generated by the music. In that case it's easy to become caught up in the "fun" of the music and perhaps miss out on any of the deeper or subtle meanings being conveyed.
The musicians assembled for this disc reads like a who's who of the world of klezmer, and it shows through in every piece as they take the music in directions you wouldn't have thought possible from hearing more conventional bands. However, no matter what shape a song takes, it manages to capture something of the spirit of the music — even the Mercer tune is given an Eastern European feel that belies its origins, and transports the listener across time and space to another era. The world that gave rise to klezmer music might no longer exist, but discs like this one not only preserves the memory of the music, it keeps it alive by injecting new life into it.