Music Interview: Klezmer Clarinettist Michael Winograd Does “Kosher Style” Proud
By Bill Marx
“There’s a giant chip on the shoulder of those who love musics of the world when it comes to klezmer.”
For a quick, delicious bite of the new album from a klezmer kingpin, composer and clarinetist Michael Winograd, listen to its title tune below. More than once, if possible.
Not all the tunes on Kosher Style (released on OU People Records) supply the same manic flash and dash. A number of moods are mastered here, from the peppery saunter of “Scenes from a Kosher Restaurant” to the meditative march of “It Pays to Buy the Best.” This variety is not surprising. Winograd’s place in the international klezmer music universe is huge: he co-founded Yiddish New York, the largest Jewish cultural festival in the nation and he’s also the artistic director at KlezKanada, the largest klezmer institution in the world. He co-leads a number of respected groups. As for his clarinet playing, Jewish-Canadian accordion player/singer-songwriter/novelist Geoff Berner pretty well sums it up:
He fucking blows away the room at klezmer. The level of his virtuosity, deep knowledge, and deep emotion in his playing doesn’t ask, it demands an equal space for klezmer at the table of other so-called “folk” styles of music, such as bluegrass, zydeco, ranchera, or the blues.
So a recording of klezmer music under Winograd’s name is a big deal. Not only because of the considerable pleasure it gives, but because it offers a cutting-edge look at the current artistic state of the klezmer music scene. Kosher Style suggests that all is well, with Winograd diving with ease into the music’s past — with a distinct focus on the 1950s and ’60s — in order to fire up its present.
I sent some questions about the recording via e-mail to Winograd, who supplied some bracing answers, particularly about the relationship of klezmer to World Music and the music business.
Arts Fuse: There has been a considerable amount of time since your last album. Why Kosher Style now?
Michael Winograd: An album like this has been brewing for a while. While I haven’t released an album under my own name since 2012, I have actually had quite a productive recording life releasing albums with Yiddish Art Trio, Sandaraa, Tarras Band, and Pneuma, all groups that I co-lead. But It took a little while to figure out exactly what aesthetic I was going for, and that can’t be forced or faked, it had to be organic and honest. Ultimately, I went back to my roots, mid-century American (and mostly New York City) Klezmer records from artists like Dave Tarras, Sam Musiker, the Epstein Brothers, and a few others. This is the music I fell in love with as a kid, and has guided me through my life as a klezmer. So once it became apparent to me that I wanted to continue in that tradition on record, it just took a few extra years to put together the entire puzzle.
AF: One commentator talks about your “neo-trad virtuosity” — does this description fit your style? If so, explain. Do you see yourself as part of the “New Klezmer” scene?
Winograd: I’m 36 yrs old, and started playing klezmer music when I was 14. I went to places like KlezKamp and every concert I could in Brooklyn and Manhattan to take it all in, at that time. I am a direct product of the Klezmer Revival, which is now 4 decades old. So I don’t see this as part of a new klezmer scene, but perhaps I see myself as a member of the second or third generation of revivalists. And like what they say about all generational shifts, you see an alteration in tastes and direction. So it’s interesting and kind of funny that some of us now are reverting our aesthetics to something older. It all adds up to me though. I’m very much part of the revival lineage.
AF: This might make you repeat what you said in the previous question, but can you give specific examples on the album that show how you — either as a performer or composer — combine the old with the new?
Winograd: Yeah! I think the “The Wedding Sher” and “Theme from ‘David and Goliath'” are really great examples of throwbacks. “The Wedding Sher” is probably the most direct in its grapple with tradition. It has a specific form that’s based on an age old Yiddish Dance – the Russian Sher – which there are countless recordings of. The song was written for a wedding and actually has full choreography that’s also based on pre-existing shers. “David and Goliath” takes its atmosphere from the song “Yeminite Dance” from the 1956 album Tanz by Sam Musiker and Dave Tarras. This is attempting to be a modernist film piece, though from 65 years back or so. Its funny to consider the term modern…. does something lose its modernity as it ages? Am I just trying to be a throw-back modernist. To quote the movie A Mighty Wind, “The outfits are retro now, but they weren’t retro then…. they were nowtro then.”
AF: I heard notes of camp — or at least satire — in some of the selections here, particularly “Theme from ‘David and Goliath.'” I am mishearing?
Winograd: Maybe – I think humor certainly has a place in klezmer music. Its not comedy. But its playful and certainly a bit kitschy. Along with the artists of the past I’ve already noted, one I left out was Mickey Katz, who was both a comedian and a klezmer clarinetist. His band was a slaying LA band and had lots of these elements too – and has had quite an impact on me as well.
AF: What was your biggest challenge with making this recording?
Winograd: FUNDING. At the beginning, in the middle and end – across the board….. and secondly THE MUSIC BUSINESS and its inability to take klezmer music Seriously. This is a longer conversation. It’s endless. But there’s a giant chip on the shoulder of those who love musics of the world when it comes to klezmer. Its a lot to unpack. I would take a good second to think about the reasons this might be — because it doesn’t take a brain surgeon to scratch the surface. I’ll leave it there.
AF: Talk about the current artistic health of klezmer — with such bands as the 4th Ward Afro-Klezmer Orchestra is it moving into multicultural territory? Or has it always been there?
Winograd: Oy. Well, related to the previous response…. I’ve found that nearly every interview i do has a version of the question/statement “so, its seems like klezmer music is alive and well…”
I’m not even sure how to respond to that anymore. It’s like….. my man, if you have to ask the question, then….. well…. So I’m not sure what the state of its health is. There’s a lot of forces working hard to keep it down…. this is truth. And its harder and harder for musicians to make a living playing klezmer music exclusively (not that many want to)… so I don’t know…. It’s not on life support, but I can’t give a comforting answer, like “Yes, its doing great.” It’s not easy for klezmorim. This record bankrupted me, and I’m only starting to recover. Let’s seem if anyone buys it a year from now, and then hopefully I’ll give you a better answer!
Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and The Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.