More or less every Thursday night, drummer Aaron Alexander books a series of some of the world’s foremost talent from across the vast, global expanse of Jewish traditional music into the Jalopy. The show starts at 8:30 PM, cover is $15, or you can show up early for a dance lesson and/or stay late and jam with the band for extra.
Sometimes the music is more jazz-oriented, no surprise considering that Alexander is a jazz drummer whose background is as eclectic as the artists he books. The Art Blakey-inspired leader of the Klez Messengers was also the propulsive force behind one of New York’s most adrenalizing large jazz ensembles, the Ayn Sof Big Band for several years.
This week’s attraction, the Big Galut(e) number among the more folk-oriented acts to play the series. This allstar band mix edgy originals into their repertoire of folk dances and laments from across the centuries and around the world. Clarinetist Robin Seletsky fronts the unit, with Sasha Margolis on violin, Michael Leopold on theorbo and baroque guitar, Mark Rubinstein on accordion and Richard Sosinsky on bass and mandolin. Their wide-ranging debut album is streaming at Spotify.
They open it with a couple of brisk minor-key romps, the first one by Seletsky’s dad Harold – a pioneer in original klezmer – and follow it with one of her own. The second track, Levant is more allusively Middle Eastern, with a mournfully melismatic opening clarinet taqsim echoed by the violin over a mysterious staccato pulse.
Margolis sings an expressive, stagy take of Papirosin, the Yiddish theatre ancestor of Little Match Girl songs. Then the band picks up the pace with Seletsky’s Kalkutta Klezmer and its lithe Indian inflections, followed by a mounfully rubato take of the old African-American spiritual Go Down Moses.
The album’s most surreal track, Charlemos, is a 1940 Argentinian alienation tale, sort of the tango counterpart to Jim Croce’s Operator, at least thematically. From there they mash up fiery Romanian Jewish sounds with bluegrass, then take a stately detour through a couple of darkly catchy baroque sonatinas by Italian Jewish composer Salamone Rossi, Seletsky drawing on her classical background.
They go back to the shadowlands of tango for a familiar Kurt Weill theme, followed by a Belgian barroom musette version of a Sophie Tucker musical theatre hit which they call La Yiddishe Mama. They mine the catalog of Mordechai Gebirtig – purveyor of crime rhymes and folk-punk broadsides in 1920s Poland and further east – for a brooding instrumental medley, which make a good segue with the slowly crescendoing Hasidic dance afterward. The album hits a peak with a trio of minor-key dances, the first bringing to mind New York individualists Metropolitan Klezmer, the second and the final one a portrait of a Thai bagel place (such things exist). Throughout the album, the strings and accordion pulse elegantly behind Seletsky’s liquid-crystal melodies. It’s soulful, and unselfconsciously poignant, and a lot of this you can dance to.