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  • Carl Zimring
    A PINCH OF KLEZMER AND A DASH OF JAZZ Jerry Karp Sunday, December 5, 2004 In a
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 5, 2004
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      A PINCH OF KLEZMER AND A DASH OF JAZZ

      Jerry Karp

      Sunday, December 5, 2004

      In a musical sense, Bay Area quartet Davka re-creates the deeds ascribed in
      legend to the mystic Jewish masters of medieval Europe, who, through
      incantations gleaned from the ancient Hebrew texts, moved at will through
      time and space.

      Davka's four musicians whirl their spells with a supple interplay of
      violin, cello, bassoon and percussion. Their compositions and
      improvisations, swirling around a center of enlivened klezmer melodies and
      pulsing Middle Eastern rhythms, weave a dancing, winding path through the
      diversity of Jewish cultural and historic experience, blending the ages-old
      music of Eastern Europe, Arabia, North Africa, Spain, Turkey and India with
      muscular strains of contemporary classical music and jazz improvisation.

      The group's concerts are celebrations of multicultural melody, harmony and
      drive. Along with frequent Bay Area appearances, they've played across
      North America, Europe and Israel. They perform a Hanukkah concert, compete
      with menorah lighting, at the cozy Noe Valley Ministry on Saturday night.

      It's been a dozen years since Davka grew from a collaboration between
      violinist Daniel Hoffman and dumbeg (a hand-held Middle Eastern drum)
      player Adam Levenson. A graduate of the Manhattan School of Music, Hoffman
      had been performing klezmer, the centuries-old traditional music of Eastern
      and Central European Jews, for five years when he first teamed with
      Levenson.

      Calling from Jerusalem, where he's a frequent visitor, Hoffman ascribes
      that first collaboration to his desire to expand the boundaries of his work.

      "I found Jewish melodic ideas to be wonderful," says the violinist, who
      also leads the Bay Area group Klez-X. "The whole Jewish experience seems to
      be in those melodies, in their ability to express incredible joy and
      sadness all at once. But at the same time, I didn't think the rhythmic
      aspect of klezmer was that interesting. I had also been studying both
      Arabic music and Mizrachi, the music of the Jews from Arab countries.
      Middle Eastern music is a lot more about the rhythm, so I had this idea of
      combining Middle Eastern rhythms with Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jewish
      melodies."

      Hoffman and Levenson performed as a duo for a year, with the violinist
      playing klezmer tunes and improvisations over the percussionist's Arabic
      and Turkish rhythms. When the pair decided finally to record, they added
      cellist Moses Sedler, whose improvisations evoke not only his extensive
      Indian music and jazz background but also a strong modern classical
      sensibility. Levenson moved from the Bay Area and bowed out of Davka in the
      late 1990s. The band's current percussionist, Kevin Mummey, lends the group
      a sophisticated rhythmic virtuosity and a versatility to match his
      bandmates, including backgrounds in jazz, pop, Indian and flamenco
      percussion.

      Three years ago, the group decided to add a woodwind voice, and brought in
      bassoonist Paul Hanson, who has performed with artists from Wayne Shorter
      to Bela Fleck to the St. Joseph Ballet Company.

      Hanson's horn adds a low, flowing harmony to the music, but he's also given
      plenty of room to run, adding fiery solos conjuring images as diverse as
      the streets of Lublin or Istanbul to "A Love Supreme." Having that fourth
      voice has made a conspicuous difference for another reason, Hoffman says.

      "As a trio, you're really a band made up of three soloists, and you never
      get a break," he says. "When one person is playing melody, the others have
      to be comping. Having Paul really opens things up in a way that gives us
      all kinds of harmonic possibilities."

      There are four Davka CDs; only the most recent, 2003's "The Golem,"
      features Davka's current lineup. It's a fascinating project reflecting
      Davka's themes of multidimensional Jewish identity reinventing itself
      through time and location. The music is culled from a contemporary
      soundtrack Hoffman composed for a German silent movie of the 1920s that
      re-created a Jewish legend of 16th century Prague.

      In the legend, the 16th century kabbalah scholar Rabbi Loew (a historical
      figure whose grave can be visited today in Prague's Old Jewish Cemetery)
      uses his mystical knowledge to create the Golem, a huge, manlike creature
      made out of clay, to protect the Jewish ghetto from anti-Semitic attacks.

      In most versions of the legend, as in the movie, the Golem succeeds in
      protecting the ghetto but is destroyed by Loew himself after running amok
      within the ghetto walls. Ultimately, there arose no Golem to protect
      Prague's Jewish Quarter, whose inhabitants were wiped out barely 20 years
      after the filming of the movie.

      While Hoffman is preparing a 10-minute Golem suite for the group's upcoming
      performances, he says Davka is concentrating on new compositions and
      readying a live CD to be released soon.

      "At the Hanukkah show, people will be hearing at least three or four songs
      that they've never heard before," he says.

      Looking back over the history of klezmer, Hoffman notes the shift from
      violin to clarinet and trumpet as the music's lead voice.

      "The violin style seemed to disappear sometime in the early '30s, being
      overtaken by horns," he says. "For me, the Yiddish violin style is the
      closest style there is to the sound and nuances of the Yiddish language,
      upon which all klezmer is based."

      DAVKA performs at 8:15 p.m. Saturday in a Hanukkah celebration at the Noe
      Valley Ministry, 1021 Sanchez St., San Francisco. Tickets: $14-$16. (415)
      454- 5238, www.noevalleymusicseries.com, www.davkamusic.com.
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