Howard Leshaw is a criminally under-appreciated New York City jazz musician. He is a virtuoso on multiple wind instruments (mainly tenor sax, clarinet, and flute) on multiple music genres (mainly classic jazz, klezmer, and dance-hall music.) Though Leshaw's native Bronx grows more diverse with each passing generation, the neighborhood of his youth was populated predominantly by working-class Jewish families. As he wrote in the liner notes:
"The Bronx that I grew up in was a unique place. We had the best zoo, the best garden, a first rate art movie house (The Ascot), the Loews Paradise, great ice cream, great bakeries, the Yankees with "Mendel" in center field (my Grandpa couldn't pronounce "Mantle") and incredibly dedicated and productive people."
Every artist is influenced by factors such as geography, heritage, religion, and cultural surroundings. Even an adventurous musician like Howard Leshaw is bound to return to his roots eventually; his resulting art is modern jazz-infused Jewish music. As he said, "a time and place has its own soul, feeling, state of mind." The depth of love and nostalgia on this disc will make you homesick for a place you've never been.
Despite his prodigious musicianship, Leshaw (like so many contemporaries) has balanced a musical career in a variety of settings: recording sessions, live club dates, festival tours, Broadway musical orchestras, society ballrooms, weddings, and much more. But unless you have a wedding invitation from a prominent Manhattan family, it may be difficult to catch a live Leshaw set these days. Fortunate for the rest of us, his high quality recordings make it possible to enjoy his unique music anywhere.
Klezmer, from the Yiddish word meaning "vessel of song," describes music created by Jews displaced to southeastern Europe around the 11th - 15th centuries. The term traditionally applied to instruments and musicians, but has been expanded to mean a whole musical genre. Like most Jewish traditions, klezmer has survived tremendous adversity. Once you've heard this joyful music, however, the recent commercial success comes as no surprise. For more information, check out the interesting Wikipedia link. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Klezmer
The first track, a medley of "Doina/Pura Vida/Der Heisser Bulgar," showcases the extreme tempo and dynamic changes characteristic of klezmer. The band fires as a cohesive unit, an even more impressive feat under the circumstances. Leshaw plays flute on "Berele’s Sherele." Several minutes into the song, the band drops out entirely, baring one of his brave instrumental finales. "Tanz Yiddlach/Leben Zol Yisroel" is another rollicking ride, and the first of several vocal songs. The Vivaldi piece is an unexpected choice, but the adjoining "Roumanian" makes for a mesmerizing study in contrasts. "Moishele" is a full ensemble arrangement, incorporating a series of call-and-response solos. It’s not hard to imagine a similar Aramaic cutting session, long, long ago. "Sim Sholom" is a sad, slow ballad featuring several layers of lush wind instruments (presumably all Leshaw overdubs.)
The Leshaw original, "Oy," heats things back up, but is probably the least satisfying song in the set. Maybe you have to hear it live, surrounded by celebration. "Bulgar/Shpiel Klesmer" is another upbeat traditional song, followed by the recognizable "Czardas." This song would be much better without the distracting background sounds (hysterical laughing, snores, whistles, etc). Couldn’t Leshaw’s experienced sidemen simulate these outbursts on their respective instruments, if asked? "Yiddishe Mama" presents Leshaw’s deftly controlled vibrato, conservative phrasing, and spacious arrangement. Wendy Kimball turns in a gorgeous vocal, reminiscent of familiar crossover singers like Jane Siberry or Sarah Maclachlain, except they can’t sing Yiddish. Leshaw save the best for last with "Vus Du Vilst/Bulgar/Epstein." The musicians lose themselves in this arrangement, and so will you.
Some purists (klezmer or jazz, both camps got 'em) feel that Leshaw's music is somehow inauthentic, but they forget all music fuses forms. This is 2001 Jewish jazz from the Bronx, not 1500 Romania or 1940 Minton's. Since klezmer is really jazzed-up versions of ancient vocal worship from the Temple, there's nothing sacrilegious about Leshaw jazzing it even further. "Jazz by any other name is still Jazz," says he. When you get down to it, Jewish musicians have been swingin' for centuries.
I’m all for the contemporary musician aspect of Bronx II, but I could do without the electronic keyboard and guitar effects. Not because there’s something intrinsically wrong with "loud instrument klezmer," but because these musicians are all so accomplished on their acoustic instruments that the low-fi synthetic elements stick out lick sore thumbs. That said, Leshaw does coax stellar performances from these guys, accurately portraying a wide range of human emotion and experience.
Bronx II: Yiddish on the Edge is the second volume in Leshaw's world music series. The earlier Yiddish Vol 1 contains traditional klezmer. His exquisite 2004 independent jazz CD, Shadow Song was an unexpected critic's choice, and will prove a difficult achievement to surpass. One thing’s for sure: Howard Leshaw is a lifer who’s sure to try. A consummate musician whose work deserves a much wider audience, highly recommended.
-David Seymour is a jazz journalist in Saint Louis, Missouri, USA.