Strange as this is to say in New York in 2014, in some circles, just the idea of an all-female klezmer band is still pretty radical. Put allusions to women loving women in the band name and the picture grows more interesting. Add to that the intoxicating mix of a hundred years worth of classic and original klezmer, latin, jazz and film music that this shapeshifting, jam-oriented band plays, and you have one of New York’s most exciting groups in any style. Isle of Klezbos have an exhilarating new album, Live from Brooklyn, recorded mostly in concert at Brooklyn College last year, and an album release show coming up on April 6 at 7:30 PM at Joe’s Pub. Tix are $14 and still available as of today.
Reduced to most basic terms, this is minor key party music at its most deliriously fun and virtuosic. The concert opens with a brief, blistering take of the 1932 Yiddish film theme Uncle Moses’ Wedding Dance, Debra Kreisberg’s whirling clarinet against Pam Fleming’s more resonant trumpet in counterpoint to a surprise ending. By the time the song’s over, it’s obvious that the all-female shtick is just that: the women in this band are world-class players. They get plaintive and haunting on the hundred-year-old diptych that follows, singer Melissa Fogarty’s voice soaring through the first section with a wounded vibrato before the band hits a dancing drive on the second, drummer Eve Sicular’s vaudevillian accents and offbeats livening the groove in tandem with Saskia Lane’s terse bass pulse while Fleming and Kreisberg revel in wickedly tight harmonies.
A Glezele Yash – a drinking song first recorded in the Soviet Union in 1961 and penned by a World War II battlefield hero imprisoned in the gulag ten years previously – is another showcase for Fogarty’s pyrotechnics. Shoko Nagai – one of New Yorok’s most individualistic and intense performers on the avant garde side of jazz – dazzles with her glimmering, darkly neoromantic and blues-tinged piano on Noiresque, a bracing latin- and Middle Eastern-tinted theme by Kreisberg, Sicular shifting seamlessly between waltz time and a swing jazz groove. After that, Weary Sun Tango, a hi-de-ho Boulevard of Broken Dreams style noir piece originally dating from early 1930s Poland, makes a good segue, Nagai switching back to lush accordion lines.
Fleming delivers a long, richly suspenseful Miles Davis-esque solo against Sicular’s ominously boomy pulse on the Middle Eastern-flavored Revery in Hijaz, Nagai’s hard-hitting piano crescendo handing off to stately, lushly intertwined trumpet and clarinet as it winds out. The trumpeter – who famously served as a third of reggae legend Burning Spear’s all-female Burning Brass – also contributes the reggae-klezmer tune Mellow Manna, a showcase for deviously spot-on Rasta riffage and riddims from the whole band, notably Sicular.
Songwise, the drummer contributes her first-ever original composition, East Hapsburg Waltz, a cinematic mini-epic that shifts from a wistful sway to more dramatically orchestrated permutations, through ominous chromatic vamping, more vivid neoromantic piano from Nagai and a big crescendo that Fleming finally takes over the edge before they bring it back down again. The audience agrees that it’s a showstopper.
The triptych that follows that is a medley that both this band and their sister unit, Metropolitan Klezmer (with whom they share members) often play live. Nagai kicks it off, brushing and rustling inside the piano in a fair approximation of George Crumb, before she goes deep into the murk. That leads into a cautious, bracing minor key tune, Fleming out front, segueing into an animatedly blithe version of the venerable Molly Picon hit Abi Gezunt with an absolutely sultry vocal from Fogarty. They close it out with a few animated bars of Klezmerengue, a mashup of popular vaudeville and Dominican themes.
The quietest song on the album is When Gomer Met Molly, a moody, rather sad, wordless ballad written by film composer Earle Hagen for an episode of the old 60s sitcom Gomer Pyle, USMC featuring Picon in one of her occasional rent-a-yenta cameos. The album closes with a live-in-the-studio take of the album’s second number, a nod to klezmer’s somber roots with stark viola and resonant trombone from guests Karen Waltuch and Reut Regev. The album comes with fascinating liner notes that trace the origins of these tunes along with how the band was able to track them down: it’s as rich in history as it is in emotion, energy and tunefulness.