(Originally published in October 2007)
I think I already mentioned the amusing circumstances in which I was made aware of the existence of the Amsterdam Klezmer Band: when French comic writer Joann Sfar released his first journal entitled Harmonica, I got in touch with him and we had a nice lunch near Beaubourg. There he mentioned his relative distaste for musics that had to be appreciated with the brain rather than the heart or the guts. We discussed various ethnic musics and he said that the ultimate klezmer band for him was the AKB. Joann has since gone on and published a superb series of comic books entitled Klezmer which I reviewed here and encourage you to read.
Fast forward a few years, I finally managed to locate some of the Amsterdam Klezmer Band albums including the one I want to tell you about, entitled Son. I must preface this review by insisting on the fact that I have practically no other knowledge of Klezmer as a genre, so I can’t review this record by comparing it to any given musical tradition. It seems to me that Son travels a little beyond the shores of Klezmer to integrate elements of various eastern european musical traditions and even a litte jazz , but I could be wrong. Consider this as an honest rendition of what I hear and what it does to me, untainted by any intellectual analysis.
The Amsterdam Klezmer Band is a lot of horns and woodwind (I don’t think the clarinet qualifies as a horn ;) backed by double bass, accordion and percussions, with the occasional vocals. Seven musicians altogether, sharing the limelight with various instruments highlighted in the different pieces presented here.
Son opens with a raucous gets-your-feet-tapping instrumental called Opa D. In the first few seconds you realise that there is something absolutely infectious about this music. It makes you want to dance and/or shake your head. The clarinet often soars above the rest, it’s just pure joy. It’s followed by the slightly less crazy Son, with percussionist Alec Kopyt singing - in Russian - and the whole band joining for the chorus. Spaghetti is another fast instrumental reminiscent of some of the movie musics of Sergio Leone, but with a klezmer bend. With Der Fryske Bulgar, we’re back in wild and foot-tapping territory, with the alto sax and trombone playing super fast improvisations.
But it’s not just joy all the way, the record shows a more somber side as well. Blue Hora is a slow, dirge-like song, with slow rhythm, the bass and accordion laying down the ponderous rhythm for the clarinet to explore the more tearful aspects that the instrument can evoke. The record also ends on a sad, but quite different, tune called Trieste Droman.
Ethnic musics, whether it be Musette, Fado or even early blues, are often considered repetitive by the casual listeners, requiring a certain depth of understanding to perceive the nuances and variety. Not so with this record. While the stylistic constraints are evident, there’s a lot of variety in Son, in terms of mood, instrumentation, singing styles and arrangements. This makes for a great listening experience even if, like me, you have no prior bagage with Klezmer.
Overall, Son is a festive record with a few medidative passages, and I recommend it highly. It wasn’t my first Amsterdam Klezmer Band record, but it’s one of my favourite. I now hope that the AKB will come through Paris soon so that I can experience these guys live, I suspect it’s well worth it!