On one hand, Litvakus’ latest album is kick-ass party music with lyrics – mostly in Yiddish – like “May you always have whiskey to fill your glasses.” On the other hand, it’s nothing short of amazing how frontman/clarinetist Dmitri Zisl Slepovitch’s band has rescued obscure songs hidden away, in some cases for more than a century, in dusty vaults that enterprising music students were very strongly discouraged from prowling around in. But Slepovitch doesn’t give up easily. Back in his native Belarus, his first band, Minsker Kapelye played their first-ever show across the street from KGB headquarters. And they got away with it. Litvakus’ new album Raysn may come across with a distinct, regional sound, but they have the fearless heart and soul of the Clash.
They’re playing Tuesday night, Feb 10 at 7:30 PM as part of one of New York’s most reliably exciting concert series in the basement of Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, 30 W 68th St (Broadway/Columbus) where drummer Aaron Alexander puts on more-or-less weekly shows featuring the creme de la creme of Jewish music from around the globe: in the klezmer world, a gig here means you’ve arrived. Concertgoers have more than one option: if you just want a quick shot of adrenaline before you head home, you can see the show for $15. For musicians, there’s a pre-concert music class at 5:30, followed by a long jam session afterward, and all of that’s $35. And maybe there’s a nosh, or a drink, who knows – it’s a lively, multi-generational, quintessentially New York scene.
The album – streaming at Bandcamp – takes its name from the old Yiddish term for what is now Belarus, for centuries a multicultural melting pot that resulted in some unique cross-pollination. Slepovitch has collected songs with both Jewish and Belorussian origins as well as a couple of boisterous originals, one of which he wrote in an inspired moment on the Q train.
The album opens with its most otherworldly track, a droning yet kinetic instrumental featuring Slepovitch on the svirel, the Belorussian counterpart to the English shawm. From there the group – Craig Judelman on violin, Taylor Bergren-Crisman on bass, Josh Camp on accordion and Sam Weisenberg on standup drum – weave their way into a swaying, minor-key, chromatically charged dance. The segue between the next two songs, Judelman handing off elegantly to Slepovitch, is so seamless that it’s impossible to tell where one ends and the next begins unless you listen closely. They keep the bouncing, bustling drive going with a fond look back at a little country town where people really like to party.
Bergren-Crisman bows his bass furiously as the next medley, a couple of pulsing traditional Belorussian dances, gets underway and then subtly segues into the Middle Eastern-tinged freygish scale, equivalent to the Arabic hijaz mode. Then Slepovitch brings it down with an ancient, plaintive, lovelorn waltz, his clarinet stark against the dark washes of bass and accordion and Judelman’s poignant doublestops. From there the band picks it up again, Slepovitch’s clarinet bobbing and weaving with an unselfconscious joy through an original that fits perfectly with the traditional romp – based on a rare 1934 Soviet recording – that follows. The clarinetist dryly describes the slow, gorgeous original waltz after that as being in the tradition of music designed for listening at weddings…or on the subway.
There’s also a wry, hair-raising tale employing lyrics from a 1922 epic poem by Moyshe Kulbak, reinvented as a lively reel; a trio of circle dances rescued from the archives; a rivetingly Middle Eastern flavored mini-suite; a rare Belorussian version of an ancient Hasidic a-cappella nigun; a dirge, a drinking song and a rousing. surrealistic tribute to a pretty Jewish girl who also happens to be the best-loved bartender in town. The more things change, right? If you like minor keys, infectious dance grooves and eerie passing tones, you’ll love this album. The cd also comes with extensive liner notes which provide all kinds of interesting historical background, very useful for western listeners and music bloggers too!