That's as it should be: Sandy Weltman, the banjo and harmonica master behind the project, knows tradition well enough to understand how to push limits without diluting the soul that makes age-old musical forms worth pushing in the first place. Weltman has been doing just that for decades, whether playing with his eccentric jazz group the Sandroids, backing singer/songwriters such as Monica Casey or testing his mettle with Farshid Etniko. But approaching klezmer music, a genre rooted in a cultural and religious history with which he himself has a close but complex relation, Weltman faced a different challenge.
At the age of 21, says Weltman, who was raised in a fairly traditional Jewish family in University City, he "accepted Jesus" into his life, the beginning of a devoutly religious path that, as his notes to the album explain, brought the music of his ancestors in the Middle East and Eastern Europe "alive" to him for the first time.
"I was touching on what could be seen as a sensitive subject for some people," Weltman says of the notes, though he could also be referring to his unorthodox approach to klezmer itself. "I wanted to say it in a disarming way. I don't think people realize that I'm a Jewish Christian. I feel like this project is something I was called upon by God to do. I wanted to share my faith on a CD that had all my background musical training, but through my Jewish identity, through klezmer. Klezmer is more secular than religious in nature; it always has been. The sensitive part is me being a Jew but also accepting Jesus. I wanted to give God all the glory for my talents, and I've never really done that in a CD before."
Though little is known about the first klezmer musicians, the highly danceable music -- typically played on violin, accordion, clarinet and hand percussion -- was first circulated by groups of wandering musicians in Jewish communities of medieval Eastern Europe. Because instrumental music was barred from Jewish temples, klezmer evolved at parties and weddings and was played both professionally and in homes for entertainment. An Eastern European saying holds, "A wedding without klezmer is worse than a funeral without tears." Over the years, klezmer took on aspects of Romanian, Ukrainian, Polish and Gypsy folk music while retaining its quasi-mystical air of Jewish liturgical singing and the vocal ecstasy of the Hasidim.
In a sense, the notion of traditional klezmer music is something of an oxymoron. "Klezmer music has always been watered down," Weltman says. "It's been influenced by Gypsies and all kinds of people, and when it came to America it was influenced by jazz. It's always changing, always evolving. Klezmer means 'vessels of song,' and I feel like I'm a vessel of song. This is how I interpret it through the instruments I play. I happened to grow up playing bluegrass on the banjo. I'm not going to spend 10 years learning the clarinet so I can play klezmer music. I took quite a bit of liberty with the songs, but if you've listened to klezmer for the last 10 years, a lot of people are doing that. There's no music police out there. Once the song is out there, we can respect the tradition it comes from and still interpret it through our own consciousness."
On Klezmer Nuthouse, Weltman's idiosyncratic and virtuoso approach to banjo and harmonica transforms the lead role of clarinet and accordion; the harmonica often sounds like both instruments at once. "I played the harmonica into a wineglass -- it's actually a brandy snifter. It makes it sound like a muted trombone. Without the glass, the harmonica had that country twang to it, but I wanted a more mystical sound." His bluegrass roots appear in more than a few numbers, but especially on "Kishiniever Bulgar," a klezmer standard tackled in breakdown style by St. Louis bluegrass band Lonesome Pines. Banjo, Dobro, guitar, fiddle and mandolin all take breaks over the sprightly melody: Fusion rarely sounds this seamless or soulful.
Ultimately one of the many paradoxes of Weltman's off-kilter approach to klezmer, or to his wonderfully skewed take on roots music as a whole, lies in his earliest affiliation with the squarest instrument a teenager could adopt -- the banjo. "I saw Deliverance," Weltman says of his musical starting point. "I wanted to play 'Dueling Banjos'! I got really into country music, Hank Williams and Roy Acuff. I was sort of a rebel. It was, like, 'Oy, he's playing banjo! What could be worse?' 'Oy, he's found Jesus!' John Hartford was always a huge inspiration to me. Then I got really into classical banjo, sort of a combination of ragtime and classical. I just dug the banjo, whatever style of music it was played in. Then I was about 30 when I heard Howard Levy of the Flecktones, and I took a workshop on the harmonica with him in Illinois. The harmonica really led me into blues and jazz. But Howard was my musical mentor. He opened up my brain to these musical visions."
Weltman engineered, produced and arranged the album completely on his own in his simple but effective home studio in Lafayette Square. On one original composition, "Dancing Sheik to Sheik," he plays harmonicas, electric banjo, mandolin, riq, kanjira, dumbek and bass. But Klezmer Nuthouse finally succeeds through the skills and imagination of some of St. Louis' finest musicians on the roots, classical and jazz scenes. Janis Rieman, Carolbeth True, Brian McCary, Tom Murphy, Mike Tiefenbrun, Thayne Bradford, Dave Black, Gary Hunt, Vince Corkery, Ali Soltanshahi, Mark Holland, Beth Tuttle, Bob Breidenbach and Michelle De Fabio all contribute. At the Sheldon this Thursday, many of these musicians and others will again tackle these demanding, fascinating tunes. Some proceeds from the concert, as well as from the sale of CDs, will be given to HISKIDS, a charity that works with families affected by childhood cancer.
Although klezmer bands aren't about to dominate the St. Louis scene -- Yidn, which gigs occasionally at Brandt's, is one of the few working klezmer groups in town -- the music has seen a recent revival. "About 10 years ago," Weltman says, "the first klezmer band that really knocked me out was the Boston Klezmer Conservatory band. The melodies, man, it just stirred something inside of me. It felt like Jewish soul music -- the equivalent of a Celtic air, only for Jewish people. But for many years, klezmer was associated with poor immigrants to this country. I don't know if they were ashamed, but many people didn't want to be associated with it. It reminded them of their troubles. Then, in the '70s, there was a new generation who discovered the musical aspects of it without the associations. There's so much klezmer music out there. It's kinda like bluegrass. There's a standard repertoire, and some groups may do it the standard way, but then others will do it in a wild way. You can't keep a tradition boxed in; it'll die."