Dan Blacksberg celebrates Hanukkah with klezmer performances
In his native Philadelphia, trombonist Dan Blacksberg is probably best known in avant-garde jazz and improvised music circles, as the leader of his own trio and the Hasidic doom metal band Deveykus, co-leader of the new-music duo Archer Spade, and a restless and inventive experimentalist who has collaborated with many of the city’s most adventurous artists.
But when he ventures outside the city, it’s more often in the context of traditional klezmer music, which he performs and teaches at festivals, camps, and schools across the country and around the world. To celebrate the Hanukkah season, Blacksberg will be showing off the talents that have made him one of the most in-demand trombonists on the modern klezmer scene with a pair of hometown shows: on Friday, he’ll congregate the Shining Stars Orchestra, an all-star quintet performing traditional and holiday-related klezmer music at the Philadelphia Museum of Art; then on Sunday, December 20, he’ll co-host a dance party with fourth-generation Philly klezmer musician Susan Lankin-Watts at the Rotunda.
Klezmer has its roots in the musical traditions of Eastern Europe’s Ashkenazi Jews, but found its modern form via immigrants to the United States in the early part of the 20th century. Much of the music that the Shining Stars Orchestra will perform on Friday stems from recordings made from the 1920s through the ‘50s.
“This is going to be a night of music showing how much energy and life there is in traditional sounds,” Blacksberg says. “Everybody in the band has their own voice in that tradition, and that’s what’s exciting to hear – how people figure out who they are within a traditional context without having to add anything fancy.”
While klezmer largely fell out of public view, along with many other elements of Yiddish culture, in the middle part of the century, it has enjoyed a revival since the 1970s through both traditional and modern approaches. Many of those practitioners share Blacksberg’s dual interests in traditional klezmer and more avant forms. That includes the New Klezmer Trio, founded by renowned jazz musicians Ben Goldberg and Kenny Wollesen, who paved the way for iconoclastic composer John Zorn’s boundless Radical Jewish Culture projects.
“It really relates to me in the sense of improvising, since I get to improvise all my parts,” Blacksberg says of the links between his passions. “There’s also so much room for expansion for the trombone. I’m developing new ways of approaching the trombone, and that’s something I’m always really committed to and excited by. But the bottom line is I just really love the sound of the music”
Blacksberg discovered the music through his parents, who returned home from the Mann Center one night in the mid-90s after seeing a performance of violinist Itzhak Perlman’s klezmer project, “In the Fiddler’s House,” with a few new CDs. Through that stash he found the pioneering and irreverent Klezmatics, one of the most important and enduring klezmer revival bands – in particular their 1995 album Jews With Horns. Blacksberg and his father tried playing some traditional tunes from a music book, but the trombonist’s passion was cemented when he attended Boston’s New England Conservatory, a hub for both jazz and klezmer musicians.
Some of the connections he made there continue today, straight into the ranks of the Shining Stars Orchestra. The band will include fellow NEC student Michael Winograd, an in-demand clarinetist throughout the klezmer spectrum, and founding Klezmatics drummer David Licht. The program will include holiday songs and pieces by composers including Dave Tarras, Naftule Brandwein, and cantor Moyshe Oysher.
The Rotunda dance party will be a more informal occasion, featuring a band made up of students from Blacksberg’s monthly “Klezmer in the Afternoon” workshops in West Philly. He began the program in January to help encourage local musicians to approach the music with the same broad-mindedness that he finds in other cities. He’ll share the bill with Lankin-Watts’ Community Klezmer Orchestra, a similar program that the trumpet player founded on the Main Line. Dancing will be led by the “Pied Piper of Yiddish dance,” choreographer and educator Steve Weintraub.
“Klezmer draws together musicians from every kind of background,” Blacksberg says, “including people with really experimental bents and people who come from more mainstream classical or folk music backgrounds. We have a shared love of something that opens me up to a community that’s a lot wider than I would have gotten if I just did one of the things that I do.”