Let’s get this out of the way right up front about the band Big Brooklyn. Yes, there are prominent qualities inspired by klezmer; not just in tonality and woodwind instrumentation, but in its musical spirit. Big Brooklyn, a remarkable ensemble from Colorado, mines veins of rock and jazz as well. At the pulsating heart of their sound, though, is something that has no adjectives to describe it; with such a depth of material on their new album “Purpose,” multiple listens will reveal new characteristics.
When the sax begins a Coltrane-like (“Alabama”) declaration in the song “One Provision,” its funky solemnity is shortly broken by a hip drum beat and a hot hook from Melody Dornfeld’s clarinet. The band can do sprightly (“8 O’Clock”), mysterious (“Twilight”) and leaden (“Something in the Way”).
With a sound that laughs and sobs at the same time, Dornfeld on clarinet is a master of nuance. Her reed is her tongue, joy is her language and this CD as a collaboration of these outstanding musicians is a supernova.
When did you start clarinet?
I am from a family of seven children and my parents had all of us start piano lessons around the time we began grade school. Shortly before school band commenced for me in the sixth grade, as I was considering which additional instrument to choose, my grandmother mentioned that her neighbor was giving away a clarinet, and so it came to be given to me. I always figure it was meant to be.
What are some of the highlights of your music education?
On a recommendation, I began taking lessons my second year of high school with Dr. Ramon Kireilis. He is an excellent teacher, performer, and the founder of the International Clarinet Association. He poured so much into me musically, and also opened my eyes to a whole assortment of performances, competitions and opportunities.
I also loved studying with the faculty at the University of Denver’s Lamont School of Music when I arrived as a performance major. In addition to being exceptional musicians, the faculty was very approachable and so supportive. Getting to perform Carl Nielsen’s Clarinet Concerto with the Lamont Symphony Orchestra was another highlight at Lamont. I began studying jazz for the first time my junior year at Lamont with Lynn Baker and had an initial connection with klezmer music. I loved it! The music of David Krakauer, a phenomenal klezmer and jazz clarinetist, connected with me, and I had the opportunity to study with him in Canada and NYC, along with attending klezmer music and language camps.
After graduating from the University of Denver I undertook an international klezmer research project and also grew much, especially in areas of tone and playing with relaxation, from studying classically in London with Andrew Marriner, the principal clarinetist of the London Symphony Orchestra and of The Academy of St. Martin in the Field. I am thankful for so many knowledgeable, kind and exceptional quality teachers.
The biggest highlight of my years at the Lamont School of Music was meeting Willie Dornfeld, who was also a student there at that time, an incredible person and fantastic musician, and who is now my husband and the drummer for Big Brooklyn. Contrasting with my classical studies, he comes from a jazz and rock background.
What have you learned about music that wasn’t taught in school?
In school I learned much of the fundamentals and theory work of jazz. It wasn’t until I was out of school that I understood one of the most important aspects of jazz is conversation. I had studied the modes, the patterns and cognitive aspects, but it was when I took a step above that framework and foundation, letting go of it all in a sense and then just speaking what came out, and responding to what others spoke through their instruments, that, for me, it truly started to mesh, flow and have meaning.
Willie and I have also learned not to be afraid to play multiple genres, mixing styles. Although it can be challenging to find venues that receive a new group with open arms with instrumental music and a group that spans genres, we have found some great jazz players like to cross over in multiple genres and play many types of music.
What inspired your new CD “Purpose”?
“Purpose” was released February 26, 2018. The music came together when Willie and I started writing music we love to play, flowing from so many of our influences; music that speaks to our hearts. As more music came together, we felt like it was time to capture it in an album.
We have been involved in music for a long time, but in this particular group we felt the freedom to write music that we love, that was passionate and all-out, while bringing together different styles in which we’ve been immersed. “Purpose” is a reflection of this.
What was the biggest challenge in making this album?
Musically, we did a lot of thinking through the small nuances of each song and how each section and change might come across to a listener to best convey what we wanted to say in the studio.
We went through changes tweaking songs and arranging them in a way we felt would best come across in a recording. Willie and I also have four amazing kids, and in the midst of a given day, it takes intention and the support of each other to keep at it.
Do you have a favorite track?
For me, I might say “Twilight.” The song captures a yearning, something mournful, yet beautiful. Music, I feel, is to give, to express something beyond words, to dance, laugh, cry out, yet to reach for something bigger, to know God… Many songs touch on this in my heart, and the build in “Twilight” grasps a piece of it too.
For Willie, it could be “Interesting Day.” He loves the contrasting sections, the different textures of the song and the explosiveness of the high sections. His favorite part of the song is the guitar solo with the alternation between the march-feel, higher energy rocking section – fun, interesting, but to be taken seriously too, with an avant-garde touch at times.
Are the songs written to tell a unified story?
No, not necessarily. However, there are consistent threads that seem to flow through each of the tracks. Since Willie and I have been the primary songwriters and arrangers, there is probably some sense of consistency that makes up a bigger picture, but nothing intentional.
Talk about your personnel and the strengths of each.
One thing Willie and I love about these musicians is that they are as great of people as they are musicians. We really enjoy being able to spend time with them.
Luke Soasey is an amazing student of sax and music, well-versed in jazz and constantly growing in pursuing it. Such a passionate player! You really see a new side of Luke when he plays, and he is all in. He means every note.
Aaron Summerfield is a masterful guitarist, comfortable in any genre, from playing a sweet ballad to soloing in free and chaotic sections. He is able to play passionately, whether it is simple or complex, technically instantly navigating whatever we throw at him. A true musician.
Jo Asker is a fantastic bass player. He plays in the moment while showing a mastery over his instrument. He provides a solid foundation while at the same time playing just what is needed and adding color. When he is let loose to solo… look out!
How did you meet?
Willie and I have been married for a while and have had a lot involvement in music, but came to a point where we wanted to put a group together with music we love playing. Willie first met Luke Soasey at a jazz jam and then had a pattern of multiple life crossovers. He and his family are great friends of ours. Aaron went to the same music school as Willie and I, although at a different time. He was referred to us by one of our past professors when we were looking for a guitarist for our group. We were able to connect with Jo, as he is an active bass player where we live.
Describe your first performances – what it was like coming together to play?
The first performances were exciting. Willie and I had been working on writing a lot of music, as the first three performances were all three-hour gigs.
We pulled musicians in we knew could play the music and add their own gifts and ideas. We have also had several other musicians play with our group at times. One of the beautiful things about playing with such great musicians is that even early on we were able to mesh quickly without spending a lot of time playing together beforehand. That said, our group is certainly a lot tighter now than those first performances.
“Big Brooklyn” – explain the name.
Willie grew up on the shoreline of Connecticut. He and his friends spent a lot of time swimming in an inactive granite quarry that had filled in with water. There were various cliffs you could jump off into the water, and Big Brooklyn, you guessed it, was the big one. (There was also a Little Brooklyn.) It was a special place and fun times.
Is it your intent to “modernize” klezmer?
No. We really are just writing music that we love. Probably, that seeps out of our influences. I am the main one with a klezmer background in the group.
We have also had some great jazz musicians who played with us and enjoyed playing something unique and different, while still maintaining the backbone of jazz and groove. It is genuine music, but we have also found that listeners seem to be drawn to the klezmer sound. There is something special about it.
What was the “aha” moment when you fell in love with klezmer?
The Lamont School of Music at DU had performances we were required to attend called “Convocations” where the faculty brought in different musicians to play for the students. During my junior year, they scheduled a klezmer artist from Cincinnati to play. I wasn’t familiar with klezmer before this time.
When she started to play, I felt a bit stunned. I loved it. I remember thinking, “This is why I play clarinet.” Even though the style of klezmer that artist played was different than the one I pursued, there was something about the simultaneous joy, even bits of laughter, infused with an underlying sorrow in the music, almost that things are not fully now as they were meant to be, that completely connected with me. The two aspects of the music put together made it very real.
The year before, during my sophomore year at school, I had begun a transition where clarinet went from something I could do, to something that was really my own voice. Strictly classical before this time, I practiced a lot. I remember a jazz musician coming in my practice room one day and saying, “Don’t you ever just play what you feel?” I did play what I felt within pre-composed music, but his comment and some of my own searching led me to start looking towards another level of expression, freedom and creativity in my playing. Thus began my jazz studies at the beginning of my junior year. When I heard the klezmer music, it all connected.
What is the biggest misconception about this music?
People have such differing conceptions of klezmer music, it would be hard to pick just one. In my encounters, listeners who are familiar with the music seem to like it or have an openness to it. Those not familiar with its sound sometimes associate it with dated Eastern influences. In these cases, perhaps a misconception can be regarding the accessibility of the music, as I have seen it connect, within the realness of the expression and the beauty of many of the melodies, with people of many backgrounds and walks of life.
What album were you featured on as a soloist on a major soundtrack?
Although based in Denver, Seth and China Kent had been working in London with Nathan Johnson on the soundtrack for a new neo-noir film called “Brick” (released in theaters in 2006). Upon the completion of their work and after their return to Denver, they realized they had overlooked a planned solo clarinet track. Through a mutual connection from my classical background, they asked me to meet them in Denver to record the track.
Because of the short notice, I knew little about the film and they knew little about my musical background. After introductions, China asked me, “Have you ever heard of klezmer music?” I laughed. I knew it was meant to be! They were hoping to have a klezmer influence added to their music. We had a great time recording the track.
What advice would you give new musicians?
Play passionately, moving above notes on a page. Practice hard. While we also love complexities, don’t be afraid of the beauty of simplicity. Know your own story, what you are driven to share, what compels you and play it out.
What is the jazz scene like where you live in Colorado?
Colorado has a very cool jazz scene. You have heavy players that either reside in or are from Denver, such as Ron Miles, Bill Frisell, Shane Endsley (of Kneebody), as well as some incredible regional players. You have jazz university programs like Lamont School of Music and UNC.
We are about an hour north of Denver, but the scenes in Denver, Boulder, Fort Collins and nearby are connected.
One of the things we loved about recording our album was getting to work with the well-respected jazz (and much more) recording engineer Colin Bricker, who is a true artist and master at what he does.
With a name like “Big Brooklyn” will you be performing in NYC?
We sure hope so!
What has been the audience reception to your band?
It’s been fun to see how often new listeners are not sure what to expect but seem to really be drawn in to the sound. We have gotten a lot of great feedback.
Thanks for all these great questions, and for taking time with us!
For more information, visit www.bigbrooklynmusic.com.
Photos courtesy of and with permission of Melody Dornfeld/Big Brooklyn.
© Debbie Burke 2018