Music Feature: Rolling With Ezekiel’s Wheels

“We’re in this really great place now where the music [klezmer] can sound fairly traditional in style but at the same time we can do more in-depth arrangements.”

by Debra Cash

Ezekiel’s Wheels — taking klezmer to new places. Photo: Amy Seibel.

Ezekiel’s Wheels OnStage, at the Coolidge Moviehouse II, Brookline, MA. Monday, Jun 24, 7 p.m., $15

It’s a back story that could be recycled from a cheesy Hollywood musical.

Hard-working buskers are playing for small change in the Porter Square T station. They’ve figured out how to keep an audience listening between trains by cross-pollinating traditional Jewish klezmer tunes with Britney Spears (“Crazy”), Lady Gaga (“Bad Romance”) and Survivor (“Eye of the Tiger”).
A fan walks up to them and tells them she knows Joey Baron, who with Jim Ball (an occasional Arts Fuse contributor) directs the Boston Jewish Music Festival. She encourages the young musicians to compete in the upcoming BJMF’s 2012 edition of Klezmer Idol, a battle of student and community bands being held at Ryles.

Then, just like it happens in the movies, our protagonists win first place. The prize includes time in a professional recording studio. During that session, they cut their first EP, and with a wish and a prayer send it off to the third biennial International Jewish Music Festival in Amsterdam.

And in Amsterdam, they win the audience prize! And discover that after spending a week together in hotel rooms they still get along!

Ezekiel’s Wheels was on a roll.

The quintet — string players Abigale Reisman, Jonathan Cannon and Kirsten Lamb with Nathaniel Seelen on clarinet and Peter Fanelli on trombone — introduces the music from their soon to be released CD at the Coolidge Corner Theatre on Monday, June 24.

“Busking requires us to develop one particular style to play anything offhand, but we’re not really worried about screwing up” Jonathan Cannon — a violinist known for his percussive techniques who in his non-musical life “studies math and neuroscience at Boston University and wonders idly when they are going to give him a PhD” — explained during a recent phone conversation. “With bigger shows we’ve had to adapt and do arrangements more carefully, but not step on the improvisational spirit.”

The T and farmers’ markets have been the band’s steady workshops, where the musicians’ challenge has been to make potential listeners with other activities on their schedule — getting to work, choosing a head of lettuce — stop and pay attention. (The cover of their full-length CD, Transported, portrays the lights of an incoming train bearing down on them as they stand on a shiny subway platform: that rumble is not exactly the background sound most ensembles would prefer.)

Ezekiel’s Wheels is the beneficiary of the klezmer music revival launched in the early 1980s, and clarinetist Nat Seelen, an Education Pioneers fellow at Citizen Schools who studied ethnomusicology at King’s College in London, is quick to say that “one of the great things about playing klezmer now is that there is a ton of history.” (That such a thing as Klezmer Idol even exists speaks the success of klezmer’s preservation.) Earlier groups including Boston’s Klezmer Conservatory Band led by Hankus Netsky “had to recreate scholarship for the general public.” Groups that followed KCB, particularly the Klezmatics, “took it as far as possible to push the limits of what new Jewish music could be. We’re in this really great place now where the music can sound fairly traditional in style but at the same time we can do more in-depth arrangements.”

The band members caught great Klezmatics violinist Alicia Svigals performing her historically-informed score for the 1918 Paola Negri silent film The Yellow Ticket at the Coolidge this past April. After the screening, they approached to say hi. “These people I had idolized knew us,” Seelen says, retaining a touch of awe in his voice. “If I went up to say, even a minor rock celebrity, they wouldn’t say ‘let me know when you’re playing.’ It’s a really friendly community.”

“The burden of bringing klezmer back to life is already shouldered,” Cannon adds. “Now we can just do something great and add what we can to it. ”

c 2013 Debra Cash

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