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World Music CD Reviews Europe

The Klezmatics with Joshua Nelson and Kathryn Farmer

By Robert Kaye
Published July 27, 2006

Brother Moses Smote The Water
Piranha CD

The Klezmatics have a well-deserved reputation for moving klezmer music into the 20th century and beyond. The band was one of the first on the East European/Roma/Yiddish revival scene, particularly hailing from America. Untethered to tradition, the Klezmatics joyfully embrace the musical heritage of the klezmorim before them, yet unabashedly emancipate it with its NYC-inspired creativity, urban attitude and chutzpah.

Brother Moses Smote The Water, the Klezmatics’ first-ever live album, was recorded in an amphitheater in Berlin. Befittingly, it’s the same venue where the group made its European debut and recorded its first album, Shvaygn=Toyt (Silence=Death) back in 1988. This live recording was inspired by the original “Freedom Songs” concert, which premiered at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City back in March 2004.

African-American Jewish singer Joshua Nelson’s vocal talents serve as a rock upon which this rousing European performance was built. Born in Newark New Jersey, the virtuoso vocalist has performed with such artists as Wynton Marsalis, Billy Preston, Aretha Franklin and late jazz giants Dizzy Gillespie and Cab Calloway; as well as gospel stars Hezekiah Walker, Albertina Walker and others. Nelson, who descends from a long lineage of black Jews, refers to his style of gospel-like singing as “Jewish soul music.” He’s right. One need only listen to the first few minutes of his breakout number, “Elijah Rock,” to feel the power. Made famous by Nelson’s grandmother Mahalia Jackson, the song sets the stage for an evening of spectacular “kosher gospel” spirituals alternating with traditional Yiddish songs.

This is primarily a folkloric and spirituals vocal album. As is germane to those genres, most of the songs are relatively unadorned in their format, chorus-verse, chorus-verse, etc. Listeners who enjoyed the Klezmatics’ crafty, predominantly instrumental arrangements on their earlier albums, such as “NY Psycho Freylekhs” from Rhythm + Jews may find some of this material somewhat redundant regarding the arrangements. It does not, however, detract from the heartfelt energy and ostensible talent of the band or its guests, Nelson and Kathryn Farmer, either individually or collectively.

That observation notwithstanding, the in-concert energy allays some of the inherent redundancy of the simplistic arrangements. The audience is rightly enthralled by the compelling performances by the Klezmatics and their talented guests, as will be the most listeners of this CD.

Berklee College of Music instructor and keyboardist Kathryn Farmer provides imaginative textures throughout the album. She adds a welcome addition to the Klezmatics’sound. Oftentimes there could be even more of her playing in the overall mix. Her compelling, bluesy showpiece, “Go Down Moses,” highlights Farmer’s combined organ/vocal talents. Augmented by Matt Darriau on saxophone and the venerated Frank London on trumpet, this song is a real showstopper. Let’s hope Farmer continues to work with the group on a regular basis.

Following Farmer’s number is an acappella rendition of “Moses Smote The Water.” Eight-part vocals, led by Lorin Sklamberg’s poignant melodic tenor voice, tell the story of the miracle at the Red Sea during the Hebrews’ exodus from Egypt. It’s an invigorating number, full of joy and conviction, proving that not only can the Klezmatics play their hearts out, but can sing them, too.

One of the most imaginative cuts on the album is the concert closer, “Ale Brider,” which, since 1988, has been the Klezmatics’ signature song. Originally penned as a Yiddish/Socialist cry for unity and freedom, for this concert, Klez and Krew added a no-holds-barred gospel “shout” chorus. The mostly vocal song is peppered with the band’s instrumental muster, which proves to be one of the most compelling arrangements on the album. After the rousi