Where does this all begin? Hard to say. I imagine the first inkling of this project would mostly likely be in the fall of 1998 when I suggested the idea of organizing and putting on a concert on December 25 to Cantor Shoshana Lash at Congregation Mishkan Israel in Hamden. She was willing to run with the idea and see where it would go. There were enough people interested so I pulled together some lead sheets and we had a few rehearsals and managed to present something nice that maybe lasted about 45 minutes or so. And by some standard we decided that the concert was a success. I’m not sure what the turnout was for that first concert, but by the third or fourth concert we were well over 100 people in attendance. And over the years the audience has grown so that we have had as many as 200-250 people in attendance.
So far this concert has managed to exist for 18 straight years. And that includes one year when I took a break so that my family could visit our son who was working in Qatar. The December 25 concert has evolved from just a break in my year into a source of creative inspiration. Musically, for me, there is always the feeling that somehow every year the December 25 concert has to be fresh and new and better than the previous year. And for me that has meant constantly being on the hunt for repertoire. The music I seek or perhaps initially sought was preferably something that wouldn’t be too hard to adapt as I needed to prepare and organize everything as expeditiously as possible. For the first few years that we did the concert I would hunt around for lead sheets of Klezmer and Jewish music. Plus people who wanted to sing songs were welcome to bring in their songs and we would hammer out pretty quick arrangements for the show. Over time I was able to build a library of Jewish music that we really liked playing.
My guilty confession (in the form of an analogy): I don’t make my own butter, I buy it already made at the store. Similarly, most of the time I don’t bake my own bread, instead I buy it already made from the store. In other words, I suppose at this point I should add, somewhat parenthetically that yes, I could gone about this process very differently and transcribed tunes from recordings. That is a great valid way to deeply connect with a music practice while finding cool new pieces to play. But, when I first started I had limited time to do this work and with everything else I was doing (teaching, parenting, gigging) I was reticent about putting too much of my energy into a once-a-year concert event. As I hope you can imagine, my attitude toward this project and my involvement evolved over the years. I still rely on sheet music as one of my resources, but there are now many arrangements in the Nu Haven Kapelye repertoire that have been distilled from my transcriptions of recordings. (and the guilt from this confession make me actually feel worse, not better. Oy.)
It took quite a few years of searching and collecting but in time I accumulated a number of collections of music that I found reliable musically and that I could use for developing arrangements for the group. How did I even learn about these collections is its own story. One thing that really helped in my education was being a member of an online e-mail chat group. The jewish-music list, curated by Ari Davidow was an invaluable resource. So much good information was and continues to be passed around in that group. I don’t know where I first learned about each of these sources, but I know I must have encountered at least a few as a result of being a member of this on-line community of like-minded music lovers. The first resource I came across that really resonated with me was a pair of music books, the two International Dance Folios originally published by Kammen Music in 1924. These two folios were collections for dance band musicians and were terrific resources. Essentially the books contained melody lines in all keys, as well as rhythm section parts. Over the years we have played a lot of music from those books. Next I got hold of Stacy Phillips’ book of Klezmer tunes published by Mel Bay and that helped us a great deal as well. Those lead sheets were used a great deal in the earliest years of the December 25 concert.
One of the big repertoire breakthroughs was tracking down and getting the only two collections of Klezmer ensemble arrangements that had parts for instruments in all keys. Most collections were strictly in C and Bb and there was little written for Eb instruments (in a way that should have been a clue to me that I was veering out of the zone of tradition since the most common of all Eb instruments, the alto saxophone, is not a traditional Klezmer instrument). First I found Ken Richmond’s book of charts that he wrote for the Yale Klezmer band and then soon after the Maxwell Street Klezmer band published their terrific collection of Klezmer arrangements. To this day we open most of our performances with the Maxwell Street arrangement of “Russian Sher”.
My search for musical material eventually led to Beregovski’s collections of Klezmer and Jewish music from Russia and I soon used many of the pieces in those collections to write my own lead sheets for the band. But from a creative point of view I think the big moment of creative transition for me happened in 2011 when I was invited by Rabbi Greg Wallto play bass in the Ayn Sof Arkestra, a Jewish big band he had founded. The group had a monthly gig at the East Sixth Street Synagogue in New York. I began traveling down from New Haven to New York once a month to be a part of this project. I loved meeting and playing with these musicians all of whom were strong players with great reading and improvising chops. As the group developed Greg invited the members of the band to bring in their own tunes and arrangements and to write for the group. I was excited by the possibility of getting to hear some of my ideas played by a big band and over the year I put together about three or four arrangements and original pieces for that group. It was my first time writing seriously for a large ensemble and when that project ended for me I was disappointed. I’d gotten bit by the writing bug and I wanted to continue to write for a large Jewish big band. And then it hit me. I had been writing and arranging for a big Jewish band since 1998 but because of my own narrow mindedness I had not been thinking about it that way. It took the end of my tenure with Ayn Sof and my continued desire to write for a big group to help me understand the gift that was this December 25 ensemble.
As I wrote and transcribed simple lead sheet arrangements for the December 25th group I discovered that these players possess an insatiable appetite for new music. Anything I presented they were ready and willing and (mostly) able to play. I was so used to working mostly with ear players, however, and it took me a while to understand that some of these musicians really wanted notated guidance. Ear players are more than willing to take musical risks, but so many of the players who were involved did not have that agenda and I wanted to be open to finding ways to keep them involved in the project. And so I began to become more aware of arrangement and how to present the music. While that might seem obvious to a trained musician, for me it was a process of becoming aware. I became aware that I could shape a piece and not just play it straight forwardly. I became aware that the group could really reach and pull itself into a shape that would allow a group of community musicians to really play this music. And I began to get even more aware of nuance than I ever had been before.
And so about a decade or so into this project I began to get serious about the arrangements for the group. Over time I found myself writing more and more frequently for the band. And I also have encouraged other members of the group to also contribute their work. Yoni Battat brought in a number of vocal arrangements, Christina Crowdergave us an instrumental arrangement and also wrote several arrangements for the vocalists. And Louis Polissontranscribed and arranged Gross by Balkan Beat Box. We were finally to the point where at least two or three of the arrangements for the concert were developed by me or some other member of the group.
My musical tastes are wide and so it should come as no surprise that the arrangements I’ve developed really run the gamut. Some are through composed without any room for soloists to improvise and others are almost like a jazz-big band chart in their structure with significant room left for improvisers to do their thing. What most of these current arrangements have in common is that I have a group of musicians who really want to play them and turn them into something tangible and musical. And there is great satisfaction in having an outlet for my explorations of arranging, instrumentation and part writing. About a year and a half ago I decided that time had come to document some of the work we had been doing and I was able to obtain a grant to record my arrangements. Here we are, nearly 19 years into this project and we are finally making to have a studio quality recording that nicely documents some of the music that we have been making here in New Haven on December 25 and otherwise. It’s a great feeling.
The room matters
Okay, we’re almost at the part of this essay where I tell you a bit about each of the tunes on the What’s Nu CD. But before I talk about the music I want to talk a bit about where we recorded the music. I knew from the start that where we recorded the basic tracks for this album was going to matter a lot. I was concerned with finding a room with a good sound and also a room that would work from some kind of spiritual perspective. I was also aware that there were a lot of musicians in the group who were recording for the first time and so having the right feel to the space mattered to me. And there were some obstacles to overcome. Getting a good sounding recording and recording over 30 people at once is not an easy combination to make happen. And I really wanted to use a room that was large enough to accommodate the full ensemble. That turned out to be its own challenge. The old cavernous New York recording studios where Duke Ellington and other big band leaders recorded don’t exist anymore and besides if they did they would have been well outside of our budget. Room after room in the New Haven area turned out to be unavailable for this recording project. And then, at almost the last minute we were given the okay to record in the Chapel, the smaller sanctuary space at Congregation Mishkan Israel in Hamden. Spiritually this made a lot of sense, since we have been playing Mishkan Israel (albeit in the social hall) every December 25 since 1998. But this space turned out to be more than just great from the karmic spiritual perspective, the room turned out to be an acoustic space that was perfect for a large ensemble. For example, please take a moment to give a listen to the drum sound on this recording. It’s really amazing. And it’s all natural. We didn’t use any added reverb to find that big deep reverberating drum voice and that great splashy sound on the cymbals. That is all the sound of the CMI small sanctuary.
We recorded basic tracks for 13 different pieces in two days. That might sound impressive but that’s what you’re stuck doing when you are working on a tight budget. You make do. And so we made did. Here are some thoughts about the songs, the arrangements, and I have also sprinkled a few origin stories here and there. Hope the stories and rambles are enlightening are worth slogging through.
Kiev Sher is a tune I found while reading through tunes in the Beregovski collection. There was about a three year period where I used the music in that collection for my daily sight reading practice. I learned a lot from the exploration of the Klezmer themes that Beregovski compiled. And I learned a bit about me and my relationship to phrasing as I tried to make sense of how these melodies all strung together. So this was one of the tunes that I sight read in that collection that I liked so much I put a star next to it and would come back and revisit from time to time. The ideas for this arrangement were primarily generated from the music of David Bowie and the drumming and generous spirit of Aaron Alexander. The David Bowie influence can be is in the way the rhythm section supports the melody (think “Fashion” or “Stay”) as well as the horn lines during the solo section. Aaron Alexander has this great way of making klezmer drumming sound traditional and super funky at the same time. A few years ago I was attending a wedding (Louis Polisson and Gabriella Feingold’s) and Aaron was playing drums with this great group of Klezmer musicians. Aaron didn’t play Kiev Sher, but he played with some of the energy that this arrangement tries to express. Especially the last part of the piece.
Joseph, Joseph (Yosl, Yosl). I was playing a gig in Brooklyn with Paul Shapiro where we were asked to play some background music. Paul suggested that we play Yosl, Yosl. But I couldn’t. I didn’t have a fake book and I didn’t know the tune. Paul suggested I check it out and for whatever reason that suggestion stuck. And it was the beginning of a fascinating exploration. I began by finding recordings and listening. I really got into this song in every configuration that I discovered. And then I began to listen to try and find my arrangement. What did I want to put that would work for the Seltzers singing with the Kapelye? Before Paul had suggested the song I’d never played it before and so my first listen sessions began. I started with a recording by Abe Schwartz and it just grabbed my ears and wouldn’t let go. And of course when I start listening to a song, every new discovery seemed to lead to two more (the longer story here which I won’t go into is that I am now on the lookout for these Yiddish swing tunes that can be both jazzy and klezzy). The slightly shorter version of the story involves discovering the popularity of this song under the name Joseph, or Joseph, Joseph on the Gypsy Jazz scene and then from there discovering the Andrews Sisters version. I think this arrangement has a little bit from each of those explorations, though to me what Jackie and Hedda have created with this arrangement goes beyond homage and presents another cool perspective on this song. I like the way the band swings on this tune and our featured soloist really has a time with this one. At the time of this recording tenor soloist Miles Singer was in his freshman year in high school. His tone is perfect for this tune and he really struts his stuff.
Belaia Tserkov Freylekh and Skotshne are pair of dance tunes I found in the Beregovski collection. It’s one of my earliest attempts at taking my arranging skills beyond playing lead sheets. I had some basic personal goals for this particular arrangement. I was interested in writing a feature for a member of the ensemble and I was interested in trying to create something that would last longer if we were playing for dancers. So I thought I’d try arranging a little medley of Klezmer dance songs. Making a medley could have been a pretty simple and straight forward task. I’d heard plenty of medleys where the switch from song to song was done without any transitions. But I wanted to try and write a transition. I tried a few and this is the latest iteration. When we play it right it really pushes you into the Skotshne. And that brings us to my first foray into writing a Klezmer feature. I found this tricky little melody and I knew that Isaiah Cooper, one of our long time trombone players would have some fun learning to play this. And I think it shows in his playing on this recording. So getting to this took a bit of work, a key change and some reimagining of the tempo, but the end result is a nice trombone feature.
Bei Mir Bistdu Schon is one of those songs that has a number of iconic performances. So it took a while to figure out how much we would play homage to those performances and how much we would forge our own interpretation of the piece. This arrangement has been rewritten so many times that I fully expect it may yet change again. There’s lots of part doubling so that everyone can lock in just by listening to one another. I enjoyed writing the call and response for Dalton’s solo and the band really starts swinging hard on the call and response between the brass and everyone else. Jackie and Hedda sound so tight on this song. You can hear how well they blend on it. And while working on this chart I found some ways to write that mostly allow for the horns and the voices to work together.
Chiribiribomis an arrangement by Christina Crowder that features the Seltzer Sisters interpreting the song in a way that’s a tribute to the legacy of the Barry Sisters. I like the way Christina’s lines support the singers and stay out of the way of their trickiest lines and some fun little moments where everyone really has to focus to make the lines all work. Lots of energy throughout this chart. Christina has a great solo in the middle.
Ale Brider has been in and out of the Nu Haven Kapelye repertoire several times over the years. It was arranged and brought to the group by one of our violinists, Yoni Battat. Yoni sang the song at least two different times at December 25 concerts. But then Yoni moved to Boston--at first for school and now for his career--and he couldn’t play or sing with the Kapelye as much (and the fact that he took time out of his schedule to come and be a part of these sessions is something I will always be grateful for). I got the thumbs up from Yoni to take his arrangement, change the key, and make just a few other fixes and voila, a feature for the Seltzer Sisters. The entire group even gets to sing a few bars at the beginning.
Grossis an arrangement by Louis Polisson. Lou grew up playing the concert every December 25 and I can still remember how excited he was to have the Kapelye play one of his arrangements. This is our most modern piece on the album, it’s a tune by the fantastic Israeli group, Balkan Beat Box. The arrangement features Lou and Henry Sidle in an epic guitar battle. And when we’ve played this song live we really stretch out the drum solo.
Zorg Nit Mama. As I mentioned earlier, for the past few years I have been using music from various collections of Klezmer and Jewish dance music for practicing sight reading. I find the recursive aspect of practice teaches me elemental language and phrase ideas from the music and I enjoy seeing what something I like hearing looks like. But all of this is such a slow process. So slow I don’t know if I can really tell when things have at all changed. I just know when things come more easily than they have in the past. So I was surprised when I came across Zorg, in a copy of some music that I had borrowed from clarinetist Jim Serling. When I played the melody for the first time I was grabbed. The ideas for this arrangement came fast. I heard that repeating trombone line grooving hard against the melody and I stuck with my first impression. I began to hear how it would feel if it was accompanied by a Motown/Stax influenced rhythm section. Then it was just a matter of figuring out the horn parts and the various accented hits that the piece would need to come alive. The organ solo by Dani Battat is the only overdub on this track. Everything else happened in the moment, including the upright bass and drum interaction during the organ solo which Jesse and I improvised in an inspired moment during the sessions. One last thing, as you might guess from their last names, Dani and Yoni are family—they’re first cousins and this track is their first recording together.
Dovidl Bazezt Die Kalleh is a reimagining of some music I first heard on a recording made by clarinetist Dave Tarras in 1926. Anna Reisman replaces Tarras’ clarinet with her flute and she plays the opening doina and after she makes us all cry the rest of the band kicks into gear when we get to the happy celebratory freylekh. I opened up the solo section here and created a solid backdrop for the instrumentalists to improvise. I could imagine a live version where we open it up even more.
Gas Nign. This tune has been in and out of the Kapelye’s repertoire for at least the past five years. We first started playing it long before I began trying to write more elaborate arrangements. I found this melody early in my reading of Beregovski’s collection and made some basic lead sheets for it. To date I have yet to go back and do something more with this tune. This performance continues that practice. I worked out this head arrangement on the day of the recording. Jesse counted us in and away we went. Everyone had a chance to be featured and we all listened to each other. Nice feel from beginning to end. Everyone really sounds like they are listening to one another.
Hora Midor di Romania is an arrangement based on the 1920 Abe Schwartz recording. I had a lot of fun figuring out how to arrange this piece for a large group. I like the way violins and other instruments interact in the second section of the hora. Everyone was singing on their instruments. And then the band leaps into dance mode and transitions into a solid Freylekh dance feel. There’s a lot of energy in this part of the arrangement and I think the soloists, Eli Zabin and Steve Jacobs really play of that. Finally the band comes back in after the solos to bring the song home. There’s a great feeling throughout the band as they come into a classic Klezmer ending. Really happy with how that came out.
Eliyahu HaNavi began as an arrangement almost 18 years ago. I first wrote and played it with Bassology, a band that I led mostly in the late 1990s. And the tune has continued to follow me. This arrangement was developed by Will Bartlett for a high school jazz band in Ohio. I adapted it for the Kapelye and we have been playing it ever since. It’s a great feature for the band members and Will’s quote of “Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho” is a great start to the energetic finish of a chart that equally engages and entertains the band and the audience.
Kostakowski Bulgar #2 is one of the more recent arrangements for the Kapelye. As my arranging skills have gotten a little better I’ve started trying out some ideas that involve more give and take, call and response and interaction between voices. For this piece, a song I found while leafing through yet another good printed source, the Ultimate Klezmer collection I wanted to write a dance arrangement with contrasting sections