Review: Isle of Klezbos brings reimagined Jewish folk music to Zankel: All-female sextet performs traditional and original pieces last Thursday

Posted by Dale Obbie

"Don't forget that the aisles are open for dancing," urged Eve Sicular, the drummer and bandleader of the six-piece klezmer ensemble Isle of Klezbos, who performed on Feb. 23 in the Arthur Zankel Music Center. Although not many people jumped out of their seats at the suggestion, the idea was tempting, and when the band began playing a rowdy wedding song, several members of the audience began dancing.

For the most part, Isle of Klezbos plays Eastern European-rooted Jewish folk music, but their diverse repertoire spans many styles, including: swing, funk, Cajun, reggae, classical, and Latin jazz. They did not stray too far from their klezmer roots during Thursday's show, but this is not to say that every song sounded the same. Some were romping, accordion-driven ballads, while others were hand-clapping, upbeat dance songs.

Featuring alumnae of The Juilliard School, Eastman School of Music, Manhattan School of Music and Harvard University, Isle of Klezbos combines the talents of top-notch musicians who have toured with the likes of Bruce Springsteen, reggae legends Burning Spear and Toots & the Maytals, avant-garde jazz composer John Zorn, and jam band Gov't Mule. During Thursday night's performance, guest bassist Dave Hofstra joined the group, but typically, they are an all-women outfit.

Some of their best songs were klezmer-jazz-fusion arrangements. These so-called "Yiddish swing" pieces combined elements of klezmer music — its rhythms, exotic scales, and accordion solos — with traditional New Orleans-style jazz. The resulting sound resembled the swinging group horn improvisations often heard in Dixieland music, with solos taken by saxophonist and clarinetist Debra Kreisberg, trumpet and flugelhorn player Pam Fleming, as well as Hofstra on bass.

The most noteworthy songs were all Isle of Klezbos originals, a testament to the band's imaginative approach to playing traditional music. One such original was a slow, spacey instrumental song during which Sicular played drums using mallets rather than drumsticks. The horn players layered their interlocking melodies on top of the resounding echoes of her drums, while Hofstra used his bow to create a drone-like backdrop with the upright bass.

Pianist Shoko Nagai began another interesting original by leaning over her piano to pluck its internal wires and mallets, creating a bizarrely beautiful introduction to a dark, brooding, avant-classical piece. She played with sweeping strokes across the keyboard, caught up in the emotion of the piece. When it was over, she picked up her accordion and resumed the giddy klezmer music.

For several songs, vocalist Melissa Fogarty took the stage, shifting the audience's attention from the band's impressive instrumental prowess to her sauntering stroll around the stage. Fogarty held a sassy smirk, trailing the microphone cord behind her as she walked. She sang in English as well as Yiddish, bringing more authentic klezmer flavor with her strong soprano. During the Yiddish swing songs, Fogarty held her own against the other soloists, launching into high-reaching scat singing solos that left her bandmates grinning and the audience applauding.

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