I had a girlfriend once. She was terrific, and I adored her. She had a great sense of humor, could find an element of fun in any activity—friends said that she made reading the phonebook fun—and was one of the smartest persons I’d ever met. She could cook, too!
Then came the day that we had to have “the talk.” She wanted to know how I really felt about her, and she wanted me to understand her feelings for me. We spent an afternoon in Hillcrest, back when that neighborhood was filled to the brim with coffee shops, and talked and talked for hours about our feelings, our plans for the future, and our deep love for each other.
That night Andrea (not her real name) told me that she’d never been happier. Deep down, for me, however, I had a foreboding. Over the next week, when Andrea and I were together, I felt constrained. I sensed a difference in her, too. The feelings of adventure and fun slipped away from us. Within two months she dumped me and soon afterward returned to her home in Minnesota.
What happened to our relationship is that it was DEFINED. And once things are defined, set in stone, they die.
All art forms are like love. They need mystery, madness, and playfulness to stay alive. Once an art form is defined, its eventual death is assured. The exuberance, joy, and soul that Bill Monroe exhibited with his new music of bluegrass in the 1940s was straightjacketed into featuring only fiddles, five-string banjos, mandolins, guitars, and high lonesome singing. Show up to a bluegrass jam with your trombone and you will be eighty-sixed quicker than you can say “sweet Kentucky cousin.”
Jazz avoided death by definition by constantly adapting to different times and tastes, advancing from swing to big band, be-bop, cool, fusion, and beyond. The same can be said of rock ‘n’ roll. Liberated from four-chord conventionality by the Beatles, rock went on to become folk-rock, psychedelic, acid, progressive rock, country rock, punk rock, new wave, yacht rock, Radiohead, grunge, and lots more.
As a traditional folk music, many want to constrain klezmer, the traditional music of Eastern European Jews, to the songs and sounds of the villages and ghettos as they were heard 100 years ago. While treating klezmer as a museum piece ensures that some form of musical is historicity maintained, the creativity of those who would play this music is inhibited. I won’t go so far as to say that it would die, like my relationship with Andrea, but it certainly would not thrive.
On the other hand, Yale Strom is ensuring that klezmer lives on and even thrives. This author, academic, musician, and filmmaker is unafraid of mixing traditional klezmer with other more modern musical forms. It’s not unusual for Strom to perform klezmer with an ensemble that includes bongo drums and Latin percussion. With his latest CD, The Wolf and the Lamb, Strom has taken traditional klezmer musical forms and the Eastern European scales that constitute this rich music and added elements of jazz and other forms of music. Traditional instruments, such as violin, clarinet, and accordion are augmented with saxophone and flute. As Strom explains in the CD’s liner notes, “The Wolf and the Lamb explores the tension between tradition and exploration. This tension is a hallmark of our music, which rests on the traditional form and modern exploration.”
Besides traditional klezmer songs, modern pieces such as “Pinsk Floyd,” and an ode to Strom’s Michigan hometown “Melody from Livonia” are included on The Wolf and the Lamb. I was also struck by a moving bilingual rendition of eden ahbez’s “Nature Boy.”
Recorded in a synagogue in the Czech Republic and engineered by Josef Krusek, the overall sound of the CD is wondrous. Strom and Tripp Sprague masterfully mixed the disk. Strom’s wife, Elizabeth Schwartz sings on The Wolf and the Lamb. She is a marvel. If you have any doubt, listen to her sing the title track. You’ll see what I mean.