By this point in their career, the Klezmatics had long been considered virtuosic musicians, each member of the band praised by critics and beloved by fans for his or her playing skills. Even those who were not particularly klezmer fanatics had to give the band their props. The trick, perhaps, was that they made it looks easy. It’s anything but. “I don’t think klezmer is something you can just pick up and play,” says Sklamberg. “It takes practice and understanding and discovering for yourself the particular aspects of its very specific musical language—repertoire, style and ornamentation—and klezmer’s historical relationship to the culture of East European Jews in general. Playing Yiddish music well requires a skill set not unlike playing classical or any other highly evolved musical style.”
Thus it was no surprise that other highly acclaimed artists yearned to work with them. In 1995, the same year that they released Possessed, the Klezmatics took part in the highest-profile collaboration of their career to that point. Itzhak Perlman, the world famous Israeli violinist, invited the group, as well as three other prominent klezmer bands, to accompany him for a concert that would be released as the album In the Fiddler’s House (Angel/EMI). The Klezmatics were featured on six of the album’s tracks and also toured with Perlman to great acclaim. A second CD, recorded live at New York’s Radio City Music Hall, followed.
Another equally magnanimous collaboration followed in 1998, when the Klezmatics teamed with the renowned Israeli vocalist Chava Alberstein for their next album, The Well (Xenophile, later Rounder). Composed of 20th century Yiddish poetry, with music by Alberstein and arrangements primarily by the Klezmatics, The Well incorporated a wide range of ethnic styles, proving the adaptability of the Klezmatics.
“Chava had made a short documentary film about elderly Yiddish poets in Israel,” says Sklamberg, “and, with renewed energy regarding her Yiddish heritage, began writing music to some of the poems. She sent us a cassette of this incredible outpouring of newly composed songs, asking if we’d be interested in collaborating with her. This is perhaps the most consistent of all Klezmatics recordings. The experience of creating and singing with Chava makes this a personal favorite.”
“She is so rich and prolific in her writing,” adds Darriau. “She gave us 25 songs and then we all went to town setting them for our group. It’s one of our strongest albums in the creative production and arranging.” The collaborative effort was subsequently honored with that year’s GLAMA (Gay and Lesbian American Music Award).
Rise Up! Shteyt Oyf! followed in 2002 on Rounder Records. “One could see this as the third in a series begun with Rhythm + Jews and Jews With Horns,” says Sklamberg. “It shares with them an eclectic batch of tunes, but also, in fact, contains the suite of material Frank was commissioned to write for the Pilobolus Dance Theatre, though it’s broken up into separate pieces on the CD. It also includes our Yiddish adaptation of Holly Near’s great ‘I Ain’t Afraid,’ which led us to the thrill of performing with both Holly and Ronnie Gilbert of the Weavers at UC Berkeley a couple of years later.”
Although the composition of “I Ain’t Afraid” predates the September 11 tragedies, the band considers Rise Up! their response to the events of that day. Reviewing the album, Time Out New York wrote, “One third of the songs will make you feel holy; one third will make you feel like whirling around frantically at a Jewish wedding; and a few insistent calls-to-arm may make you feel like smashing capitalism.”
Rise Up! introduced to the lineup the most recent full-time addition to the group, violinist and vocalist Lisa Gutkin. Unlike the others, who came to klezmer from various circuitous routes, Gutkin found the music through…the Klezmatics! “Matt Darriau was in my Celtic band Whirligig and thought I’d be good at it,” she says, “so he and [drummer] Dave Licht brought me tapes of old Jewish violinists and I flipped.”
Gutkin had grown up playing classical violin and then bluegrass, Irish and a host of other international styles, as well as backing songwriters. “I had made a pact to only play Irish music but the Klezmatics were such a fantastic band and these old recordings mesmerized me. So when the Klezmatics called me I decided to give it a try,” she says.
“It took many years before I felt that I understood klezmer deeply,” she adds. “I had an immediate feel for it. Oddly it was my paternal grandfather’s more cantorial voice that I referenced in my head more than my maternal grandmother’s Yiddish singing when I was learning the phrasing and note emphasis.”
The next album, Brother Moses Smote the Water (2004, Piranha), was the Klezmatics’ first live album, recorded in Berlin, the site of their debut studio set. The concert featured two amazing guest artists, gospel singer Joshua Nelson and jazz stylist Kathryn Farmer, both of whom contributed vocals, piano and organ to the show. For the concert, the Klezmatics and their guests performed “freedom songs” solo and together, drawing mostly from the Jewish and African-American spiritual traditions, with Passover playing a large role in the songs’ lyrical focus. Nelson has continued to appear with the Klezmatics for several concerts each year and fine examples of the “Kosher gospel” amalgam they create can also be viewed in the documentary, The Klezmatics: On Holy Ground.
Describing the album, a press release at the time said, “The Klezmatics, known for their unique blend of melodic mysticism and improvisational activism have once again turned their music inside out, exposing the complexity of Jewish identity, black identity, human identity.”
Critics fell in love. Calling the Klezmatics “the best band in America,” the Pop Matters website raved about Brother Moses Smote the Water: “There are no longer any boundaries of any kind. The world is changed, somehow. If you have any soul at all, you will weep.”