Two Sides of Iconic Trumpeter Frank London, Live and on Record
It makes sense that Frank London’s Klezmer Brass All-Stars would headline the finale of this year’s NY Gypsy Festival, starting at 7:30 PM on October 4 at the Schimmel Center at Pace University on Spruce St. in the financial district. The iconic trumpeter had already established himself in Balkan music before co-founding the original New York klezmer punk band, the Klezmatics. Since then, London has lent his firepower, wit and erudition to innumerable projects. One of the most quietly impactful and historically rich ones is Italian-born singer Shulamit’s album For You the Sun Will Shine: Songs of Women in the Shoah, which came out late last year. It marks the first release of the work of four women songwriters who chronicled their harrowing experiences, imprisoned during the Holocaust. One survived, two others were murdered, and the fourth is assumed to have perished as well. As you would expect, this is one of the most surreal and chilling albums ever made.
London and pianist Shai Bachar co-produced the album – four of whose tracks are streaming at Shulamit’s music page – recasting these pieces as art-songs. Bachar brings both a neoromantic plaintiveness and also a sense of the macabre that he uses delicately to raise the surrealistic factor. Big Lazy’s Yuval Lion supplies spare, purposeful percussion on a handful of tracks. Shulamit sings in German and Czech with equal amounts expressivneess and restraint: the common link among these songs is a crushing hope against hope.
The songwriter whose work is featured most prominently here is Ilse Weber, a popular Czech broadcaster and children’s author murdered alongside one of her sons in the gas chamber at Auschwitz in 1944..What’s most striking, aside from the heartwrenching, plainspoken lyrical content, is how diverse her songwriting is. London’s bright, blue-sky lines and Bachar’s stately piano channel a distant parlor-pop charm that makes a crushing contrast with the songs’ theme; at times, the band will mirror the crushing sarcasm of her lyrics with a faux-celebratory, martial Teutonic beat. But the forced-march courage quickly gives way to a muted horror, through the twisted I Wander Through Thersienstadt, the Satie-esque lament And the Rain Keeps Falling and a couple of lullabies, one of them an attempt to marshal some calm amidst the horror, and one that doesn’t try to mute the reality of the circumstances under which it was written.
The Czech-born Ludmila Peskarova, who survived and lived to 97, is represented by two tracks. There’s a sad Christmas-day tableau from the Ravensbruck camp, and Moravia, Moravia, the most ghostly and otherworldly song here, evoking an ancient cantorial ambience.
The most savagely sarcastic, despairing number is The Auschwitz Song, attributed to one Camilla Mohaupt, whose fate is unclear. It’s a cover of a 1920 Dutch pop hit with new lyrics reflecting hopelessness and sheer horror amid the squalor. There’s also an ornately classically-tinged miniature with music by Polish composer Carlo Taube and lyrics by his wife Erika: “As long as you aren’t bound by the word ‘home,’ your heart will be free,” a mother explains to her child. These days, one can only wonder how many of the Syrian war refugees feel the same way.
London’s show on Sunday with his band and singer Eleanor Reissa wraps up a tremendous night of music that starts at 7:30 with the Underground Horns, who veer from the Balkans to the Mediterranean to New Orleans, then the similarly eclectic, Ellington and hip-hop-influenced Slavic Soul Party, then the punk-inspired Hungry March Band, the only group on this bill so far to play Madison Square Garden. Considering what you get, cover is a reasonable $20.