An ahead-of-its-time klezmer album will be performed live for the first time


(New York Jewish Week) — In 1955, a group of musicians gathered in a Manhattan recording studio and committed to tape 16 tunes. When the LP, “Tanz,” was released the following year, it barely made a splash.

Over the years, however, the recording would gain a reputation as a landmark klezmer album, years before the klezmer revival of the 1970s and ’80s. Recorded by the klezmer virtuoso Dave Tarras and a handful of respected New York jazz players, including brothers Sam and Ray Musiker, the record was a groundbreaking mix of the traditional Eastern European Jewish dance music and a jazz and big band sound.

And now, nearly seven decades later, the entire album will be performed before a live audience for the first time ever. On Thursday, Brooklyn-based clarinetist Michael Winograd will lead a band of klezmer all-stars as they play the music from “Tanz” (Yiddish for “dance”) at the Marlene Meyerson JCC on the Upper West Side.

“One of the things that I love about his compositions on ‘Tanz,’ is that they feel like they are both inside and outside the klezmer box,” Winograd told the New York Jewish Week. “They are so clearly klezmer, but they’re also pushing the boundaries so much and I think that came from his work as a jazz musician.”

Winograd completed the herculean task of transcribing all the instrumental parts of the album several years ago. He said that he originally transcribed “Tanz” as a technical exercise and initially had no plans to record or perform the material. But trumpeter Frank London of The Klezmatics convinced him to reconsider, Winograd said.

“Frank told me, ‘You have the music, you might as well perform it. It would be amazing,’” Winograd recalled.

In December 2018, he performed some of the tracks with two different klezmer bands in Berlin and New York. The upcoming JCC performance, however, is the debut performance of the album in full. Winograd is working with Aaron Bendich from the Borscht Beat record label and hopes to release a film of the JCC concert, which is co-presented by the Ashkenaz Festival, the Center for Cultural Vibrancy, the Center for Traditional Music and Dance and the Weitzman National Museum of American Jewish History.

The driving force behind “Tanz” was the late Sam Musiker, a fourth-generation klezmer musician born in New York. He and his younger brother, Ray, also a member of the “Tanz” ensemble, performed klezmer extensively starting as young musicians. On the album cover, the Musiker brothers got second billing to Sam Musiker’s father-in-law, the clarinetist Dave Tarras, a Jewish immigrant from Ukraine and the undisputed king of klezmer at the time.

Also playing on the album were drummer Irving Gratz, Tarras’s regular drummer; pianist Moe Wechsler, a Juilliard-trained musician who played in the big bands of Benny Goodman and Louis Prima; accordion player Seymour Megenheimer, a pianist who later became known as Sy Mann and is credited with recording “Switched-On Santa,” the first Christmas album to feature a Moog synthesizer; Mack Shopnick, a swing-era jazz bassist who was later active in the American Federation of Musicians union; and trumpeter Melvin Soloman, who played on a couple of Sarah Vaughan albums.

The musicians gathered at the former church that became Columbia Records’ 30th Street Studio to make the record. The studio opened after World War II and, until it closed in 1981, it was graced by some of the greatest musical talent of the 20th century, including Vladimir Horowitz, Dizzy Gillespie and Bob Dylan. Rehearsal and recording took place over two days, according to Ray Musiker, who had to take off a couple of days from his regular gig: teaching music at James Madison High School in Brooklyn.

Ray Musiker is the only surviving member of the original band, and earlier this month Winograd interviewed the 96-year-old at his home on Long Island, where they discussed how the record flopped when it was released by Epic Records in 1956. “It didn’t make an impact — there were too many things going on in the world of pop music,” Musiker told Winograd. “Judaism was Americanizing, the whole thrust was to assimilate. Klezmer music started to dwindle. They’re not living in the shtetl and they don’t want to hear shtetl music. It died out like [the Yiddish theater on] Second Avenue died out.”

And yet, in recent years, “Tanz” has been reexamined and reappraised. According to Uri Schreter, a PhD student at Harvard who studies Jewish music during the postwar period, “Tanz” is one of the most important klezmer recordings of the latter half of the 20th century. With its brass-heavy big band arrangements, “Tanz” was klezmer’s “very significant and very deep step into the world of American popular music, specifically jazz and swing,” he told the New York Jewish Week.

“Tanz” was also unique in that it featured two lead clarinetists who were both virtuosos with distinctly different styles: Sam Musiker was the American-born klezmer jazzman who could swing — he played in the Gene Krupa Orchestra and served as a sideman to Roy Eldridge and Sarah Vaughan. Dave Tarras was the epitome of the Old World klezmer tradition, Schreter said. The two styles are in a kind of a competition, Schreter said, but are also in collaboration.

Winograd, 40, is capable of pulling off both styles, he added. “You can hear when he’s playing Sam Musiker and you can hear when he’s playing Dave Tarras,” Schreter said. “He’s always playing Michael Winograd, of course. And he doesn’t sound identical to them. He doesn’t want to.”

According to Hankus Netsky, founder of the Klezmer Conservatory Band of Boston and co-chair of the New England Conservatory of Music’s Contemporary Musical Arts program, Winograd is one of the most inspired klezmer musicians of his generation. “His current band is the best thing going at the moment,” said Netsky. “The level of Winograd’s cadre of musicians is kind of astronomical.”

The line-up for the JCC performance includes Marine Goldwasser on clarinet; Alec Spiegelman on saxophone and bass clarinet; Frank London on trumpet; Will Holshouser on accordion; Carmen Staaf on piano; Zoe Guigueno on bass; David Licht on drums, and Katie Scheele on English horn.

Virtuoso jazz and classical clarinetist Don Byron was in the Klezmer Conservatory Band from 1981 to 1987. He recalled when he first heard “Tanz”: in 1981, when his roommate, KCB bassist Jim Guttman, brought the LP from a used record store in Boston and asked him to have a listen.

“I listened to it once and I was, like, ‘We gotta play this,’” said Byron, who attended the Manhattan School of Music with Ray Musiker’s son, Lee. “Nobody [in the klezmer scene] knew anything about that record.”

The KCB played two selections from “Tanz” at every performance while Byron was in the band, though they removed the tunes from its repertoire when he left in 1987. Now, with Thursday’s performance, the full album will finally get its due. “Sam [Musiker] was one of my heroes,” Byron said. “To me, the tunes that he did [on ‘Tanz’] were some of the great achievements of modernism in the [klezmer] idiom.”

“Michael Winograd Plays ‘Tanz’: A Live Album Recreation” will take place at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan on Thursday, Feb. 16 at 7:00 p.m. Tickets, $10, and information here.