"Klezmer," I'm told by Bill Averbach, leader of The Austin Klezmorim, is Yiddish for "musician," which goes some way toward explaining the wide-open eclecticism of the musical genre of the same name. Eastern European in ancestry, klezmer music is more or less Jewish jazz, a hodgepodge of improvisation-friendly musics originally played by streetwise Jewish musicians who absorbed local influences as a matter of economic necessity as they were chased in and out of towns across Europe.
Klezmer is also, Averbach says, a musical form that "likes to make fun of the trials and tribulations of life, that tries to find something to smile about." Think of the classic traditional "Hava Nagila" -- a song Averbach calls "the Jewish 'Cotton-Eyed Joe.' " Even if you don't know the Yiddish words, you know the melody, and if it doesn't put a minor-key grin on your face, you should probably have someone check your pulse.
Austin Klezmorim grew out of a musical crash course prompted by a bar mitzvah gig almost 13 years ago, and Averbach, who also plays trumpet with Austin reggae band Killer Bees, finally got serious about it after hearing a tape of San Francisco's renowned Klezmorim.
Self-produced tapes by the Austin unit have sold over 7,000 copies nationwide in the past four years, prompted in part by renewed interest in folk musics of all stripes, and on July 17, Austin Klezmorim releases its first CD, East of Odessa -- the first CD of klezmer music ever to come out of Texas.
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"A lot of klezmer bands are preservationists," says Averbach, "but one of the traditions is flexibility of styles. Klezmer style is very similar to jazz in its broadness, and improvisation plays a big part. Klezmer also comes out of folk music, and most folk is an oral tradition, so it gives the musicians a lot of freedom."
East of Odessa takes advantage of that freedom, with improv-laden renditions of traditional classics alongside two of Averbach's original compositions, tunes that reflect the perspective of a man who thinks it would be a really good idea to start "Hava Nagila" with the "Proud Mary" intro and who wrote a tune called "The Big Megillah" featuring Lord Buckley-style beat poetry.
The band ranges from four pieces to 14, depending on the occasion, but for this, a rare bar appearance, expect a six-piece of trumpet, accordion, tuba, drums, violin and vocals. And expect to dance. (East of Odessa is available by mail for $15 from 210 Walnut Drive, Austin, TX 78753.)
-- Brad Tyer
The Austin Klezmorim performs at 8 p.m. (non-smoking) and 10 p.m. Saturday, July 2 at McGonigel's Mucky Duck, 2425 Norfolk,528-5999. $6.
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