By Denti Alligator
The new David Krakauer record is the eighteenth volume in John Zorn’s second book of Jewish songs he calls The Book of Angels. Unlike the first book of songs, which he mostly recorded with his own Masada quartet in the 1990s, this new set of over 300 songs was composed in just three months in 2004 and has been slowly appearing on Zorn’s Tzadik label, each set performed by a different musician or group of musicians. The arrangements are typically undertaken by the performers, so that each entry in the series bears the mark of the musician(s) interpreting the songs as much as Zorn’s distinctive melodies.
Krakauer’s contribution is no different. Pruflas consists of eight songs arranged and produced by Krakauer and performed by a quintet including himself on clarinet, Michael Sarin on drums, Sheryl Bailey on guitar, Jerome Harris on electric bass and vocals, and Keepalive on laptop.
Krakauer is of course a veteran klezmer musician who has led and contributed to an impressive array of recordings in both more traditional settings and various crossover projects. In this group he succeeds in melding klezmer with a little funk, some rock, and a tad bit of electronic music. The result is, mostly, exhilarating.
At first I was less convinced of that this fusion worked, and in fact the weakest moments on the record, such on “Egion,” are when the band relies on Keepalive’s blips and beats or Harris’ funky bass to carry the piece forward rhythmically. Even the otherwise marvelous “Neriah-Mahariel” (see the next paragraph) shifts mid-song with a bass break that feels contrived. I like soulful klezmer, but funky? The beat here just doesn’t seem to fit. It never lasts long enough to ruin a song (again, only “Egion” suffers as a whole), and even helps in establishing the dynamic that defines the record’s motley sound. What may start out sounding like an infelicitous mix soon begins to feel just right.
Some of the generic experimentation is immediately effective, like in “Neriah-Mahariel,” which begins with a slow, one-minute doina-style introduction of mournful clarinet over soft cymbals and barely perceptible bass before Keepalive’s laptop kicks in with a Jews’ harp (hah!) sound that sets the pace for the second, upbeat (even rockin’!) section. This works, and when Bailey enters with spaghetti-Western-meets-surfer-rock riffing the whole band seems to have achieved the perfect balance of serious Jewish music and playful, even punk (that is, slightly irreverent), klezmer.
“Fandal,” the shortest track, is the most punk of the bunch, but by punk I mean DNA-meets-Minutemen, not Black Flag. ‘Cus even here it’s funky. Keepalive provides a scratchy rhythmic texture over Saris’s hopping syncopation—but wait! who’s that on alto? None other than Zorn himself, who contributes his inimitable squeal—uncredited, mind you—battling with Krakauer to outdo one another in volume at the higher registers of their respective instruments. Perhaps he should have joined the band for more pieces, because he seems to inspire everyone to play in top form. Bailey is on fire on this track, blazing away noisy abandon.
The center piece, though, is “Parzial-Oranir,” an eleven-minute piece in which a six-note bass line is repeated as Krakauer’s clarinet, Bailey’s guitar, and Harris’ chanting weave in and out with increasing complexity and intensity and then fall apart around the sixth minute as Keepalive’s laptop noisily disrupts the pace, making way for a drum solo that then ushers in the lively second half showcasing Bailey’s wah-wah-tinged serpentine runs over Krakauer’s insistent wails. Yep, it’s that awesome.
If you like klezmer and you like it with an edge (why else would you be reading this blog?) then you’ll love this record.