NEW YORK — Clarinetist David Krakauer and electric guitarist Mark Stewart sound like nonidentical musical twins on A New Hot One, Krakauer's most recent hybrid of sizzling klezmer and Downtown jazz.
Krakauer has described the clarinet as "the electric guitar of klezmer music," and the album's kickoff track, "Klezdrix" (RealAudio excerpt), nails the analogy neatly.
A New Hot One, released Tuesday, is Krakauer's third solo album since he left the Klezmatics, the well-known New York avant-klezmer ensemble, in 1996. A jazz- and classically trained clarinetist who is also well-known in the new-music scene, Krakauer, 44, said he began playing klezmer in the late 1980s "as a kind of musical hobby and as a way to discover more about my Jewishness." It was a natural fit from the outset, he added, "because it felt like my grandmother speaking."
Krakauer said he got into Klezmer "in a kind of haimish, casual, almost amateurish way" — playing for fun in nursing homes and Jewish community centers. "Klezmer became a kind of a musical home [where] I could bring together all the stuff I was doing in jazz as a teen and later as a classical performer. Klezmer is a classical style I'm helping to preserve."
Krakauer joined the Klezmatics, one of several young klezmer groups then rediscovering their roots, in 1987, following a chance meeting with violinist Alicia Svigals. He played on the Klezmatics' albums Rhythm + Jews (1990) and Jews With Horns (1994), as well as on their portion of violinist Itzhak Perlman's klezmer album, In the Fiddler's House.
But he left the band because, he said, "I guess I had leaderitis. The Klezmatics are a collective, and I wanted to own and operate my own store." Krakauer went on to record a pair of solo albums, Klezmer Madness (1995) and Klezmer N.Y. (1998), for the avant-Jewish Tzadik label.
The centerpiece of the latter album was "A Klezmer Tribute to Sidney Bechet." The piece imagines a musical meeting between two clarinetists, the African-American jazz player and the Ukraine-born klezmer icon Naftule Brandwein. Each of these musicians came from a separate but equally strong cultural milieu and ended up in New York during the turbulent '20s. Rather than do klezmer versions of Bechet tunes, however, Krakauer wrote original music that reflected a meeting of an African American and a Jew.
"We have so much in common," he said. "We both got screwed in Florida during the presidential election! It's important to discover the things we have in common. This is an allegorical portrait of that kind of common thread."
Krakauer described A New Hot One as "a record about memory, the memory of Eastern European grooves." "Love Song for Lemberg/Lvov" (RealAudio excerpt) is about his grandfather's birthplace, while the title track (RealAudio excerpt) is based on the traditional tune "Der Heyser Bulgar" (The Hot Bulgar), which Krakauer rewrote, he explained, "like Charlie Parker took 'I Got Rhythm' and wrote 'Anthropology' on top of it."
Krakauer, also regarded as a classical clarinetist of dazzling technique, has been principal clarinetist with the New Haven Symphony and the Martha Graham Ballet. He has a long association with the New York Philomusica and has performed with numerous new-music groups. Krakauer and the Kronos Quartet have recorded his work The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind, and he is on the faculty of New York's Mannes College of Music.
Maintaining separate sets of klezmer and classical chops is "almost like playing two different instruments — classical clarinet and klezmer clarinet," Krakauer said. "In fact, I use different mouthpieces and reeds. The sound is very different, so it has to feel different."
Krakauer will combine those worlds April 21 at the Merkin Concert Hall in New York, when he performs an intermissionless solo recital of works by Janacek, Brahms, Debussy, Steve Reich, Messiaen and his own "Rothko on Broadway," followed by a set of klezmer tunes performed by his Klezmer Madness! group.