December 10, 2018

Yiddish Art Trio brings a collection of influences to Klezmer outfit

Clarinetist Michael Winograd, accordionist Patrick Farrell and bassist Benjy Fox-Rosen have carved out a unique niche in the larger klezmer shtetl as the Yiddish Art Trio. It’s a concert ensemble that plays original, forward-looking compositions but also is deeply immersed in the multi-ethnic roots of klezmer. 

Lest you think that puts the band out on an esoteric limb, Fox-Rosen readily assures: “We can play great dance and wedding sets, too.”

The clarinet’s liquid phrasing slides like butter across a hot grill as its timbres constrict and inflate, moving from a laugh to a sob in a heartbeat. The accordion bellows imply Old World histories as well as Latin American, Caribbean and Azerbaijan cultures. The contrabass carries a pulse rooted in Macedonia, Romania, Vienna, Transylvania and America. 

It’s common at Yiddish Art Trio recitals to see a room full of people dancing in their seats — so get ready for what has become the group’s regular January appearance in Los Angeles, this time at the Skirball Cultural Center on Jan. 24.

Fox-Rosen grew up in the Pico-La Cienega neighborhood and went to Jewish schools: Temple Beth Am’s Pressman Academy and what is now known as Milken Community Schools. He played in the jazz band and sang in the choir, and he credits Russell Steinberg, Milken’s music teacher, for being transformative and inspiring. 

“He started the music department there,” Fox-Rosen said from his in-laws’ home in Austin. “He made a chamber group out of a ragtag instrumentation and wrote a new Hayden arrangement for us each year.”

At The New School in New York City, he studied with the great jazz bassist Mark Dresser, also from SoCal. “Mark has a very scientific mind and curiosity to understand the bass,” Fox-Rosen said. “He plays at the highest possible level and he’s someone to be emulated.”

Fox-Rosen received a Fulbright grant for 2012-2013, which sent him to Moldova to study Romanian folk music and to do some ethnographic research on vocal music. Unfortunately, he said, “I got there 20 years too late. Most of the older singers had left or died off.” 

He delved into native forms like doina, the Romanian improvised music that was incorporated into klezmer. “The word ‘hora’ is a Romanian word,” Fox-Rosen said. 

The bassist met Farrell in Serbia in 2006 when Fox-Rosen was on tour and his future colleague was a tourist. Farrell, speaking from his New York home, said he grew up “all over the place, but mostly Ann Arbor, Mich; I was an Army kid.”

He was trained in the piano classics, and Bela Bartok was his gateway to Eastern European music. He studied with Macedonian accordionist Goran Alachki and recently with Margit Kern in Germany, adding: “They were very helpful but I’m mostly self-taught.” 

For a non-Jew, Farrell’s dedication to the genre is impressive. “Klezmer and Yiddish music speak to me,” he said. “I love the improvisation and how the melodies lay over the chords.”

Fox-Rosen praised his band mate, describing him as having “incredible intuition” and “quick ears.” 

“He really understands the dance and the rhythms,” Fox-Rosen said. “We both know exactly where we want the beat at all times.” 

Could this be due to the bassist’s jazz background? “I think it’s in spite of that,” Farrell said. “It’s more a byproduct of his grasp of Hungarian and Romanian music.”

Winograd entered the picture when Fox-Rosen met him at KlezKamp, the yearly Catskills conflagration of traditional musicians (convened in 2014 for the 30th and final time). Winograd has an abiding love for the work of two master clarinetists: Dave Tarras (1897-1989) and Naftule Brandwein (1884-1963).

“Michael is one of the premier contemporary klezmer clarinetists,” Farrell said of Winograd. “He’s always expanding the vocabulary of ornamentation, but never excessively.” 

The trio began as the Michael Winograd Trio but as ideas and collaborations ricocheted, it morphed into Yiddish Art Trio. When it’s pointed out that the name could denote stuffy art music or function as a put-on, Fox-Rosen smiles. 

“It’s a little of both,” he said. “We’re trying to create serious concert music of our own compositions. We don’t play the klezmer hits, but if we do, we’ll do it in a different way.” 

Farrell added: “We’ve all learned from the older players of the 1940s and ’50s who have passed. The klezmer revival is secure now, so we don’t feel the need to mix it with rock or fusion. We want to play our own music that ties in to the traditional klezmer but pushes it forward.”

The yearly winter sojourn to Los Angeles is something they look forward to. “Tex-Mex tacos in Austin are all right,” Fox-Rosen said, “but they can’t hold a candle to the traditional Oaxacan food we can get in L.A.”

Click here for more information about the Yiddish Art Trio’s Jan. 24 performance at the Skirball Cultural Center.