Graded on a Curve: Michael Winograd,
Kosher Style

When clarinetist Michael Winograd’s new record entered this writer’s reality as an upcoming release, some form of coverage was basically inevitable. That its arrival on June 21 includes an attractive vinyl edition surely aided in securing it a long review, but the foremost reason is the quality of its 13 tracks. Worry not, for this isn’t an example of the slightly above-average getting thrust to the forefront for simply being amongst the best the contempo scene has to offer; just for starters, Winograd has played with the great violinist Itzhak Perlman. As the words below illuminate, he is the real deal, and Kosher Style is masterful klezmer. The record is out now through OU People.

Record release PR regularly comes attached with quotes of positivity from relevant parties. These additions range from superfluous to insightful, but they are rarely worthy of non-promotional citation. However, the statement accompanying Kosher Style from Canadian accordionist and klezmer man Geoff Berner is an exception: Winograd is not a dabbler. He isn’t an aspiring 12-tone composer who can play some klezmer. He isn’t a punk-rocker looking for a new angle on approaching his songwriting. He IS a klezmer. He knows klezmer. He fucking blows away the room at klezmer.

Listening to the opening title-track here, one need not be a klezmer expert to absorb the rightness of Berner’s statement, as the virtuosity is undeniable, and just as important is a palpable joyous assurance; at a smidge over two minutes long, “Kosher Style” wiggles and soars as a statement of intent. Along with establishing the band’s overall prowess, the highlights are Winograd’s clarinet runs and a sweet solo from trumpeter Ben Holmes.

Berner’s words could insinuate that Winograd is a stern purist. Track titles like “Bar Mitzvah Bulgar” might strengthen this implication. Indeed, Winograd has been long based in Brooklyn, and it’s doubtful there is a locale in the US where a klezmer specialist could close themselves off from contempo influences in the desire to replicate and preserve the sounds of an earlier era.

However, as a terrific article Winograd contributed to the website All About Jazz highlights, his objective with Kosher Style was to extend the developments in klezmer that flourished in the second half of the 1950s through artists like Sam Musiker (on the ’56 Epic LP Tanz!) and the Epstein Brothers (on the ’58 AAMCO label set Mazeltov: Wedding Songs of Our People).

It’s a sound described by Winograd as Modernist, and it was a progression that abruptly stopped, at least as far as commercial recordings are concerned, around 1960, with a hiatus extending for approximately two decades. Winograd poses the conceptual question, “What if this Modernist klezmer impulse kept on growing?” This makes Kosher Style a sort of speculative throwback.

In lesser hands, this would likely be a creative mistake if not an outright disaster, but as Berner states above, Winograd knows klezmer. The truly striking thing is how “Bar Mitzvah Bulgar” and “The Wedding Sher” resonate as foundationally solid while oozing contemporary vitality, though this shouldn’t suggest, the title of “Online Polka” to the contrary, that the music is a succession of hybrids with current styles.

While Winograd’s All About Jazz piece relates how the history of klezmer in the USA is partially about the integration of forms (jazz, of course, but also pop) encountered after the move westward (klezmer is the folk music of the Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe), the contemporizing here (in keeping with the concept) is more a byproduct of Winograd’s experience; he’s most definitely not a stern purist, as he’s toured with both Vulfpeck and Socalled (the former plays funk, the later a mélange of styles).

And so, “Scenes from a Kosher Restaurant” unwinds like expertly conceived soundtrack music from a freshly made period film, a sensibility that extends to “Dinner in Bay Ridge,” which offers a glorious feast of horns, and “Kiddish Club,” a track featuring some fine cymbal work from drummer David Licht, a downtown NYC vet who plays exceptionally throughout.

As does everybody; a band is only as strong as its weakest link, which is especially relevant here, as Winograd is described as “a living embodiment of the repair of the broken chain” (this break being 1960-1979). And there isn’t a lesser tune in the bunch, with all the instrumentalists getting a chance to shine as the compositions unwind; in “It Pays to Buy the Best,” it’s the rhythm section of Licht, bassist Jordan Sand and pianist Carmen Staaf.

“International Hora” is another standout, offering some of Winograd’s richest playing, as the accordion of Sanne Mörricke is foregrounded. But as impressive as the musicianship is how Kosher Style works on multiple levels, with the meditative and soulful “Manhattan Beach Doina” and the full-bodied finale “South Brooklyn Bulgars” combining with the cover photo (snapped at Coney Island) to reinforce the album’s sense of place.

“Brooklyn Pursuit” works toward this aspect as well, though simultaneous with the aforementioned cinematic quality. As it plays, I hear just a hint of Raymond Scott. It’s in the faster numbers that the horns, which include Ken Maltz on tenor saxophone and bass clarinet and Daniel Blacksberg on trombone, really shine as an ensemble. But it’s “Theme from David and Goliath” that really drives home Winograd’s concept and stands at this early juncture as Kosher Style’s centerpiece.

To quote the artist, it was conceived as “part of a soundtrack for a Grade B, presumed lost, silent Yiddish film” (conjuring thoughts of Edgar G. Ulmer’s works for the mid-20th century Yiddish film market like American Matchmaker, though those weren’t silent or for that matter, lost). According to Winograd, the intended humor didn’t land, so he “dropped the schtick…but kept the title.”

Which was smart, as “Theme from David and Goliath” helps to amplify Winograd’s core idea; the era he’s extending from was the period of myriad jazz versions of show tunes and movie themes, so why wouldn’t there be, a la Tanz!, a Modernist klezmer update of a silent Yiddish movie soundtrack song? Like the entirety of Kosher Style, it’s delivered with richness and verve, but it’s ultimately the conceptual ambitiousness that’s going to land this LP on the shortlist of 2019’s best.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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