It’s hard to believe that it’s been twenty years since high-voltage, time-warping Jewish jamband Metropolitan Klezmer played their first gig at CB’s Gallery, next door to its big sister club, CBGB. In the years that passed, there’s been some turnover in the band, but no relenting in the intensity or the fun department. Their latest release, Mazel Means Good Luck, is a live album – something more bands ought to be making – which comprises material from concerts at several venues from 2009 through 2013. The album is streaming at Bandcamp, and the band are playing the album release show on Dec 15 at 7 PM at the gorgeously restored, sonically rich Eldridge Street Synagogue Museum (just north of Division; B/D to Grand St.); cover is $20/$15 for students.
Much as the band dedicate themselves to original material, drummer/leader Eve Sicular is also a serious musicologist, with a love for resurrecting obscure treasures from across the decades. One particularly noteworthy cover here is the version of the slow, sad lament Die Fire Korbunes – a 1911 requiem for the victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire – which by all accounts seems to be the first-ever recording of that song. The band also reach to the Soviet Union in 1956 for their update on an Anna Guzik recording of incendiary, iconic songwriter Mordechai Gebirtig’s subtext-drenched Yankele, sung in shiveringly nuanced Yiddish by Melissa Fogarty, accordionist Ismail Butera and violist Karen Waltuch supplying a stark backdrop.
A medley of Romanian-inflected tunes opens with a suspenseful, whirlwind acccordion improvisation, then the band segue into a stately but edgy processional. A clarinet-fueled take of Mikhail Ziv’s 1969 title theme from the Soviet tv cartoon Cheburashka portrays its furry, enigmatic central character as a rather forlorn soul. Fogarty pulls out all the stops for a mischievously sultry take of the album’s title track, originally recorded by Louis Prima’s big band in 1947. There’s also a mashup of a couple of pensive traditional themes with a jaunty, vaudevillian, klezmerized version of Frank Loesser’s Luck Be a Lady Tonight, fueled by clarinetist Debra Kreisberg and trumpeter Pam Fleming.
A similar outside-the-box sensibility informs the band’s originals, which is what distinguishes this group from others in their field: their repertoire is vibrant and in the here and now, and often irreverent. Kreisberg contributes Baltic Blue, which begins as a haunting, slow cumbia, then mashes up the blues and Hava Nagila with soulful solos for alto sax, muted trumpet and Reut Regev’s trombone – it may be an elegy for Brooklyn neighborhoods lost to the blitzkrieg of gentrification. A diptych by the group’s former trombonist Rick Faulkner goes in the opposite direction. And the band waste no time kicking the album off on an explosive note with a trio of party dances.
Sicular also has a thing for subversive humor, which is front and center on the closing number, When Israel Met Jenny, from her multimedia piece J. Edgar Klezmer. It’s a sort of klezmer-chamber-pop reminiscence of how Sicular’s psychiatrist grandmother dealt with FBI surveillance during the cold war, a bitingly funny over-the-shoulder glimpse of the kind of conversation many of New York’s intelligentsia could have had around the table at a Passover seder. Keep an eye out for this one on the best albums of 2014 page here at the end of the year.