Throaty, Gutsy and a Little Bit Wild – Gefilte Swing’s CD “Klez N’Zazou”

When klezmer – music from the Jewish settlements of Russia and Poland with a Romanian and possibly Greek influence– meets swing, better step back for a lava-like result. “Klez N’Zazou,” the latest offering from klezmer fusion group Gefilte Swing, rains down with an Eastern European kick, great licks and airtight harmonies. Founded by multi-horn player Alexandre Litwak, these are 14 tracks that leave you breathless, exhausted and in love. While “Benny’s Freilach” jumps with intensity and excitement, “Freilach a la Litwak” (freilich means “happy”) is lighter, toying with a higher register when all of a sudden the all-instrumental yields to phenomenal vocals very much in swing territory (think Andrew Sisters). A beautiful soup that sprinkles flavorings from hither and yon. “Mashav” is introspectively calm, melodic with an outstanding solo on trumpet soon answered bluesily by piano and then a stunning display on clarinet. Charming, delicate vocals start off “Ikh Zing” and “Yid Meets Goy” has an old-country flair that is a quick run around the block.

The CD title refers to the “Zazous” who, according to Wikipedia, were “a subculture in France during World War II. They were young people expressing their individuality by wearing big or garish clothing (similar to the zoot suit fashion in America a few years before) and dancing wildly to swing jazz and bebop.”

The core group is Muriel Missirlou/vocals; Laurent Vassort/trumpet; Alexandre Litwak (leader)/clarinet and alto sax; Wilfried Touati/accordion; Pascal Fabry/tuba; Clément Moraux/drums.

How did you get into clarinet and sax, and what was your first performance?

There were nearly two generations between me and my parents.  I was born in 1970 and experienced the 1920s/30s/40s thanks to them, I heard a lot of swing and New Orleans jazz recordings, but also a lot of classical music (Debussy, Ravel, Poulenc). I first heard Bix Beiderbecke and Sidney Bechet recordings when I was 15 years old – it was like a revolution in my head!  I wanted to play the cornet but it was too difficult to play so many notes with only three pistons!  So thanks to Bechet, I chose clarinet.  My first lessons were at a private jazz school, but my teacher was ignorant of any jazz pre-bebop. I quit after ten lessons and started learning directly  from the recordings. I then studied with a classical clarinet teacher who really taught me how to play the instrument – even though he knew I was not headed for a classical career!

After several years I purchased a saxophone – a C Melody sax (like Frankie Trumbauer).  But it was not tuned to more modern instruments so I switched to alto saxophone and also some baritone sax.  I even tried the cornet again. It wasn’t as difficult as I had remembered, but learning clarinet and trumpet a the same time was not easy. Not everyone can be Benny Carter. I had to choose – my father who was a dentist warned me that my teeth would not survive the trumpet.  

I was 18 years old when I first performed with only three years of clarinet experience, not to mention that I was also going to school during those years. And with my friends at that school, we formed a small jazz band with a string bass, percussion, guitar, trombone and myself, and we played every Saturday night at a local bar. We didn’t make much money but the drinks were on the house and the girls would be watching us. I’ve kept some recordings from those days – just awful!

How does your knowledge about different cultures and languages help you to be a better musician?

Although my name is synonymous with a Yiddish accent, no one ever spoke Yiddish with me.  I never spoke it as I knew about 50 words or so.  And my English isn’t much better.  What really helped me to become a better musician  was the enormous mass of recordings that our predecessers left for us, as much in klezmer as swing.  Be inspired by others, copy them and add something of yourself.  Recordings from the past and the present are our étude books.  And don’t forget that klezmer and swing are music that came from our oral traditions. 

Talk about your latest CD and your favorite tracks.

Six years had past since our last CD (2012-2018) and the time had come to make a new CD.  Our sound and style had evolved, and new players brought their own standards, fresh ideas and a new approach. This CD is also an homage to my father who passed away in June 2017 at the age of 95.  Although not a musician himself, he never stopped supporting me and encouraging me in all my musical endeavors.  He was enthusiastic each time I announced a concert, a private event or a festival where Gefilte Swing performed. And he was proud that the orchestra that I founded in 1999 was still active. His determination is also mine, to continue with this group, regardless of the inevitable and unpredictable changes that life may bring.  

I chose these tunes based on the sounds that would have been close to those that my father had listened to and loved, the atmosphere that he had transmitted to me with enthusiasm that I wanted to recreate, without being afraid of adding other sounds.

Every tune on this album is my favorite – each one telling a short story, whether true or false. Imagine that Benny Goodman had replaced Naftule Brandwein, or Sidney Bechet playing a John Zorn composition…etc.

Why did you choose this as a band name?

I grew up in a so-called “mixed”family. My mother wasn’t Jewish; I wanted to create a mixture between swing and klezmer.  I figured that taking part of the name of this dish so familiar to Jews would be perfect for this music.  Wouldn’t you agree that we are playing a sort of  “stuffed swing”? I always think that you play as the person you are.  

Why did you choose to work with the other?

I don’t like to play music all by myself and I don’t see myself as a “sideman”.  What’s important to me is the group, otherwise I wouldn’t have called this “Gefilte Swing” but “Alexandre Litwak Sextet.”  Even if I’m the leader, I wanted, for example, to include a trumpet, which is more of a lead instrument than the clarinet.  I also wanted an accordion and a tuba to emphasize the “trad” side. Each player came with his “musical past” and brought a personal touch and knowledge. 

Where are you based now?

I was born and I live in Paris.  The other musicians live either in Paris or in the nearby suburbs. I never managed a group with musicians who were based far away Paris.  

Do you know when you will start performing live again?

As soon as possible!

What is the most important thing to know about klezmer as a musician? As a music lover?

Klezmer is festive music that has drawn on many other types of music. It’s music that has traveled from Europe to America and back again to Europe. To play the way we do in the Gefilte Swing, you need to understand this and not get locked into a single approach.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on myself !

What do you love most about being a musician?

Making our audience dream. 

Other comments? 

For klezmer musicians, I’m a swing musician; for swing musicians, I’m a klezmer musician… Jews don’t consider me as a fellow Jew, but for non-Jews, I’m Jewish…Whatever! You always need to find your path and stick to it…that’s what I try to do, with what I am. 

Translation by Susan Vaillant

For more information visit https://www.gefilte-swing.fr/en/

Photos courtesy of and with permission of the artist.

(c) 2020 Debbie Burke

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