You don't have to be Jewish

It sounds like a marketing gimmick, says Simon Broughton, but when it comes to klezmer, Itzhak Perlman can tell his kvetch from his krechz
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There's an old Yiddish saying that runs: "In the fiddler's house, everyone dances..." and one suspects that EMI's marketing people are dancing all the way to the bank now that the renowned classical violinist Itzhak Perlman has strayed into Topol territory to record a disc of Jewish klezmer music.

The record catalogues are littered with embarrassing cross-over albums on which celebrated classical musicians profess admiration for other musical disciplines and then deliver performances that fall far short of the mark - Menuhin plays jazz, for example, or Dame Kiri does songs from the shows. Marketing successes on paper and musical disasters on vinyl (or whatever substance CDs are made of). But Itzhak Perlman's new disc, In the Fiddler's House, is one of a rarer breed - an album that sounds like a marketing gimmick, but is actually a musical marriage worth celebrating.

The premise is this: top Jewish violinist goes back to his roots and plays traditional Yiddish dance music with some of America's leading contemporary klezmer bands. What's surprising, if anything, is why this hasn't happened before. Just think - Heifetz, Oistrakh, Stern, Menuhin, Kremer - it's hard to name a top international violinist who isn't Jewish. But it's relatively recently that the American klezmer revival has really come of age.

Klezmer music was born in the Ashkenazi Jewish communities that once stretched across eastern Europe from the Baltic to the Black Sea. The itinerant klezmer musicians schlepping their way from shtetl to shtetl to perform at weddings and celebrations are a popular image of pre-war Jewish life, familiar from Fiddler on the Roof, the Yiddish stories of Sholom Aleichem, or the paintings of Marc Chagall, packed with picket fences, wooden houses and violinists seen at lurid angles. The music, closely related to the traditional Romanian, Moldavian and Ukrainian music that surrounded it, can be both ebullient and melancholy, generating a wild excitement and deeply expressive power. As Sholom Aleichem observed: "You can compare the heart in general, and the Jewish heart in particular, to a violin with several strings."

With the mass Jewish emigration from eastern Europe early this century, the music became even more itinerant and evolved into new forms throughout the diaspora. In the United States, where a considerable body of klezmer music was recorded up until World War Two, the violin - the pre-eminent klezmer instrument in eastern Europe - gave way to the louder and more urban-sounding clarinet. And, as the immigrants settled into the American way of life and eventually became assimilated, they put their Old World traditions behind them.

It was only about 20 years ago that second and third generation Jewish musicians virtually rediscovered this music, as well as some of the surviving players, and started a klezmer revival that has gone from strength to strength. This has involved the re-creation of old styles, as well as extending the boundaries with new compositions and experimental fusions. Today, the music is heard more often on concert platforms than at wedding parties, but its audience goes well beyond the Jewish community to encompass fans of jazz and world music.

The four American groups with whom Perlman chose to work on the new disc - the Andy Statman Klezmer Orchestra, Brave Old World, the Klezmer Conservatory Band (KCB) and the Klezmatics - comprise as good a selection of contemporary bands as you could wish for. The clarinettist Andy Statman was a pioneering figure of the klezmer revival and has gone on to compose a lot of new klezmer repertoire as well as to explore the traditional tunes; Brave Old World combines a classical approach with an understanding of klezmer's east European roots; the 11-piece KCB plays American-style 1920s big-band klezmer with up-front sax and brass; while the Klezmatics are a tight six-piece band at the cutting edge of klezmer, with an eclectic 1990s New York sound.

So where does Itzhak Perlman fit into all of this? First, let's squash one misconception. Being Jewish doesn't mean you can play klezmer; and, conversely, there are some fine klezmer bands featuring non-Jewish musicians. Equally, just because Perlman's parents emigrated from pre-war eastern Europe and he himself grew up in Israel, it doesn't guarantee any familiarity with the style. Paradoxically, Israel has been notoriously indifferent to Yiddish culture and music, emphasising instead the Semitic and Hebraic elements of Jewish tradition. But Perlman encountered it all the same: "I heard the sounds of klezmer music on the radio. My parents had both come from Poland, and Yiddish was the first language of our home."

Feeling sceptical, I wanted to find out just what the klezmer musicians themselves made of Perlman. They are specialists, who know this tradition inside out and don't suffer fools; and among them are the very best klezmer violinists - artists who have been studying, playing and teaching this music for years. Had Perlman simply blown in and ridden roughshod over all their expertise in the course of producing an album that, in the US alone, has already sold over 100,000 copies in under six months - more than 10 times the number the most successful klezmer release would normally sell?

"I grew up worshipping Perlman," says Alicia Svigals, violinist with the Klezmatics. In fact, last year saw her collaborating with her two greatest musical idols: Led Zeppelin as well as Itzhak Perlman. "And I was so impressed by how humble and open he was. He came to it believing that we had something to teach him and he was hungry to learn."

Svigals, a leading expert on klezmer violin, gave Perlman a crash course in the ornaments that are so much a part of the style and lend it its expressivity: the "kvetch" (or "cry"); the "krechz", an inflection adapted from cantorial singing; and the characteristic bending of notes. "His ears are like sponges," she says. "He listened to our playing and filtered it through his own musical process, and then this amazing sound came out."

In comparison with Perlman's mellow Stradivarius, Svigals felt that her own violin sounded like a cigar box; but when they play in duet, it's often hard to tell them apart. And that is a tribute to them both. There's no denying the sheer virtuoso technique which Perlman brings to the music, both in speed and beauty of tone. He also introduces fiendishly difficult double-stopping and spectral harmonics, techniques that are common in classical music, but totally alien to klezmer. Yet the musicians are enthused by the results.

"There's a clear reason why he can play klezmer easier than, say, jazz," explains Frank London, leader of the Klezmatics, in reference to Perlman's two not very successful attempts at jazz collaboration with Andre Previn a few years back. "Klezmer is closely related to European classical music - as is eastern European gypsy music - and Perlman can play them both very successfully." Although it's often erroneously described as "Jewish jazz", klezmer involves relatively little improvisation or any of that laid-back, behind-the-beat playing style that always defeats classical artists.

So, from her standpoint as master of the klezmer violin, are there skills that Alicia Svigals thinks Perlman still needs to develop? "To play more idiomatically, he needs to work on the ornamentation - at the moment, he plays a sort of stylised version of klezmer ornaments. But the great thing is that he has his own unique style. There are the three best klezmer violinists on this disc, but none of us can play like him."

Perlman entered so far into the spirit of the whole thing that he even pops up as a solo vocalist on one of the 15 tracks, taking turns to sing with the rest of the Klezmatics; and although he's unlikely to topple Topol, you sense the enormous fun that obviously went into the making of this record.

"The important thing," adds Frank London, "is that he brings himself into the music. He's not trying to be a mimic, and it's not the most original or the most authentic recording of klezmer ever made, but it's full of his personality - outward, gregarious, ebullient, with that beautiful virtuoso sound that he's got. It works. And of course my mother is very proud I've played with Perlman - I suspect everyone's mother is very proud of them!"

n `Itzhak Perlman: In the Fiddler's House' is on EMI Classics: CD 5 55555 2, MC 5 555554 and VHS Video 4 91566 3

n Simon Broughton is co-editor of `The Rough Guide to World Music'