Jim Guttmann takes on the Jewish and Klezmer repertory with abundant humor, passion, and a refreshing dose of over-the-top rowdiness.” — Dr. Hankus Netsky, Founder and Artistic Director, Klezmer Conservatory Band
Bessarabian Breakdown (Kleztone Records) has been a long time coming. For more than 30 years, bassist Jim Guttmann, best known as the anchor man in the Klezmer Conservatory Band, has played everything from klezmer to jazz to bluegrass to classical, but always in the bands of other people. Now he has stepped forward with his very first album as a leader. Working with an all-star cast that includes fellow KCB members pianist Art Bailey, drummer Grant Smith, and trumpeter Mark Berney; and a host of musicians whose careers, like Guttmann’s, defy easy categorization, including clarinetist Billy Novick, trumpeter Frank London, violinist Mimi Rabson, and guitarist/mandolinist Brandon Seabrook. Not surprisingly, the music reflects the wide-ranging talents of its leader. While firmly rooted in the klezmer tradition that Guttmann knows so well, the album branches out into intriguing jazz, funk, and world music fusions, too. “Basically, I wanted to include everything I like about what I’ve done over the past 30 years,” he says.
“Every style of music I play has it’s own time feeling,” Guttmann says. “Whether I’m playing bluegrass, or in a jazz quartet, or in the Klezmer Conservatory Band, it’s all about the time. The time propels everything else I do, harmony, melody—everything.
“So one thing I wanted to do on the album was showcase how I approach all these different kinds of music, both as an ensemble player and as a soloist. After 30 years, I felt like I really have something to say as a bandleader. I knew I could assemble a group of musicians who would play well together, and I felt like I could do something meaningful and personal with all this music I love. And I wanted to have fun—why play music if you’re not having fun?”
The album kicks off with “Philadelphia Sher,” a traditional Jewish dance played with raucous New Orleans Mardi Gras abandon by a horn-heavy 10-piece ensemble. It’s very much an ensemble performance, with clarinet, trumpets, and trombone all playing together and ornamenting the melody, but notice how skillfully Guttmann pilots the band from the bass. He keeps an unerring beat, and his choice of notes keeps an unbroken melodic thread running throughout all the collective merry mayhem around him.
Guttmann brings special insight and understanding and a warm, supportive sound to every setting he works in. Perhaps the best place to hear his self-effacing virtuosity in on his unaccompanied solo version of Naftule Brandwein’s “Firn Di Mekhutonim Aheym.” His firm, glowing tone wraps the song in a warm embrace and he keeps the tune moving forward at a relaxed tempo without ever hurrying the beat or letting it drag. It is so expertly judged that he makes it sound easy, but it is the kind of mature performance that only a master of his instrument and his idiom could make. On the Johnny Mercer-Ziggy Elman standard “And the Angels Sing,” he displays his equally firm grasp of jazz, playing the melody and soloing as if he were a horn player himself, and then melting back into the rhythm section for some flowing and sophisticated walking bass. Guttmann is attracted to just about any music with a danceable beat, and his bass lines move like a dancer’s feet on klezmer-meets-Cuban guajira “Descarga Gitano.”
Ingenious fusions of musical elements like those heard on “Descarga Gitano” abound on the album. “Cuando El Rey Nimrod” is a traditional Sephardic melody played in an odd meter with Grant Smith playing dubek for unusual percussive colors. The arrangement of the title track brings a dose of Tower of Power funk to a traditional bulgar. “Beregovski 90: Skocne” is a riotous group improvisation right out of the Charle Mingus playbook. “Sadegurer Chusidl” rocks out. In each case, there’s more than novelty involved. Guttmann’s choices bring out new aspects of the original song, and provide him and his band mates with interesting musical challenges that are also fun and entertaining for listeners.
The musicians on the disc, clearly relish the chance to work with Guttmann and to stretch the music in new directions. Violinist Mimi Rabson plays with sweet sadness on a marvelous version of klezmer fiddling legend Leon Schwartz’s “Doyne, Hora, Sirba.” Clarinetists Ted Casher and Billy Novick tread the line between klezmer and small band swing as they solo together with special élan on “Dark Eyes.” The brass players all solo to great effect on “Descarga Gitano.” Brandon Seabrook takes a virtuosic turn on mandolin on “Cuando El Rey Nimrod.” But more than the solos, it’s the collective spirit of fun and selfless dedication to the music — which all starts with Guttmann himself—that permeates the disc and makes it such a pleasure.
A native New Yorker, Guttmann took up string bass in 1973, after moving to Boston. From 1975 to 1979, he was a member of the eclectic bluegrass quartet Cheap Trills. He was a regular on the jazz scene, as well, and he also performed often with the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra until the mid-1980s. As a founding member of the Klezmer Conservatory Band, which almost single-handedly launched the modern klezmer music revival, he has appeared on all ten of their recordings; toured Europe, Australia, and America; and performed and recorded with Joel Grey and Itzhak Perlman. He also performs in klezmer ensembles with Andy Statman and Frank London, and in Alicia Svigals’ Klezmer Fiddle Express. In addition, he is a member of the Grammy-winning ensemble featured on Yehudi Wyner’s “The Mirror,” a klezmer influenced chamber work released on the Naxos label. Guttmann is a founding member of violinist Mimi Rabson’s Really Eclectic String Quartet (RESQ). He appears on their self-titled 1992 Northeastern Records debut CD and on their second release, To the RESQ (Meemz Music, 1998). He has performed with singers Eartha Kitt and Mark Murphy, blues masters Johnny Shines and James Cotton, Texas swing legend Tiny Moore, new acoustic music guitar virtuoso Russ Barenberg, the Artie Shaw Orchestra, Jaki Byard’s Apollo Stompers, and many others.
Guttmann brings a wealth of musical knowledge and wisdom to his debut as a leader and it shows on every track.
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