On a chilly night a few days before Hanukkah, a quartet came onstage at New York City’s Bowery Poetry Club to improvise to the songs of Mordkhe Gebirtig. The pairing of Gebirtig and improvisation isn’t obvious: Can the works of the best-known Yiddish folk composer, shot to death in the Krakow ghetto, really be comfortably interpreted with the chief deconstructionist technique of modern music? But on second thought, the two do go together. Gebirtig’s creations are often mistaken for folk songs because he made sophisticated works of art that are clear, emotive and easy to understand. Similarly, the improvising musician sounds deep because he taps into the musical intuition shared by everyone.
Benjy Fox-Rosen is casual and deep, like most bassists. He came to New York in 2002 to study jazz, and has broadened his interest to include other alternative music. Yiddish music — “klezmer” is too limiting a term — is by now a member of the alternamusic constellation in good standing. There is jazz-inflected Yiddish music, hip-hop Yiddish music, punkish Yiddish music. Fox-Rosen’s quartet makes improvisational Yiddish jazz. Past decades have seen an upsurge in Yiddish music, with a solidification and dissemination of knowledge. So, there is now a repertoire, even an orthodoxy. Improvisation (which crosses boundaries) is something today's Yiddish-music listener needs.
But you shouldn’t get the impression that improvisation was the sole focus of the set. What I heard at the Bowery Poetry Club — sponsored by the Congress for Jewish Culture as part of the Kavehoyz series — was a vivifying concert of old lyrics in new bottles. First came seven Gebirtig compositions, favorites of the Yiddish musical repertoire and across the emotional spectrum, from tragedy to drinking song to savage pre-Holocaust irony. Fox-Rosen wrote the music to two of these (“Hayse Trer,” or “Hot Tear,” and “A Zuniker Shtral,” “A Ray of Sunlight”), and the effect (as always, with fitting musical settings) was to put the words in a new frame.
Next came a suite of four songs: Mark Warshavsky’s elegiac “Dem Milners Trern” (“The Miller’s Tears”), followed by improvisation, then Gebirtig’s “Hob Rachmones” (“Have pitty”), and then more improvisation. Finally, Gebirtig’s “Minutn Fun Bitokhn” (“Moments of Confidence” — defiance, that is, in the face of oncoming destruction) yielded to Avrom Reisen’s bitterly minimalist “Hulyet Hulyet Beyze Vintn” (“Howl, Howl, Raging Winds”). The songs are diverse, as their titles make clear, though the listener unfamiliar with Yiddish music of this vintage (that is, prewar) might be forgiven for finding it all a touch sentimental. In particular, when I heard “Hulyet Hulyet” I couldn’t get out of my head the version by Daniel Kahn & the Painted Bird, driving, nasty and wholly Reisenish in its forthrightness.
But Fox-Rosen’s versions have their own inventive charms. I listened well that evening, and I came away with an appreciation of the power of context. Improvisation, when done as convincingly as it was here, is a special current animating even overly familiar music. Improvisation and composition combined are the best of both worlds.
Improvisation is about both the performance and the final product. Fox-Rosen, who is also a lead vocalist, managed to narrate in an off-the-cuff way, combining stories from his time in Argentina with impressions of old synagogues from a recent tour of Transylvania. Sometimes I couldn’t tell whether he was telling the stories to entertain himself or the crowd (“crowd” is an exaggeration here; it was 25 to 30 diehard Yiddish enthusiasts, all of whom I know too well). But I don’t think it mattered. His good humor was transmitted to the audience, which in turn was ready to follow him down musical byways.
Fox-Rosen was accompanied by Judith Berkson on voice and accordion, Noah Kaplan on saxophone and Juan Pablo Carletti on drums. I don't know if the rest of the quartet besides Fox-Rosen has any close connection to Yiddish music. This lack would be quite salutary for Yiddish music: It means, for example, that Gebirtig’s songs, now a part of the broad canon of alternative music, might find from an unexpected quarter another interpreter as fresh as Fox-Rosen in another 20 years. Thus (as the old Jewish idiom has it) will Gebirtig’s lips whisper in his grave, improvising a greeting for Yiddish musicians above ground.