Klezwoods’ Take On Old Traditions (Review by Owen McNally, The Hartford Courant)

What began as a casual klezmer jam session at a Christmas event in 2007 in a neighborhood tavern called Atwoods in Cambridge, Mass., has merrilymorphed into an exuberantly eclectic, swinging and succesful klezmer-inspired band called Klezwoods.

Klezwoods today is a busily touring, recording and still celebratory, Boston-based band with a robustly growing reputation. Its jubilant trademark is its ecumenical mix of traditional klezmer Jewish dance and wedding music, laced with a foot-stomping, genre-crossing array of world folk musics focusing on distinctly East European and Middle Eastern moods, modes, melodies, rhythms and harmonies.
While paying homage to traditional klezmer music, taps into ingredients from Israeli, Arabic, Balkan, Egyptian, Greek, Turkish, Polish, Irish and Gypsy folk music. Add to this red-hot hybrid, large, rollicking infusions of jazz, free jazz, funk, rock, reggae, bluegrass and you name it.

Klezwoods, which plays everywhere from bars to bar mitzvahs, from the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, to the Helsinki Klezmer Festival in Finland, brings its joyful musical melting pot of a party to Middletown Sunday, May 19, at 7 p.m. as it performs at the Buttonwood Tree, 605 Main St.

You don’t have to know a thing about klezmer or Middle Eastern music — with its puzzling, exotic time signatures and mysterious minor-key harmonies — to have what Klezwoods trumpeter Sam Dechenne calls “a blast… a really good time for everybody including band members and audience alike.”

“At a performance hall in the Kennedy Center we had the audience up and dancing on the seats,” Dechenne (pronounced De-Shane) says by phone from his home in Cambridge. “We’ve played shows for synagogues where there are little kids running around, and they absolutely dig it. And I’m positive they don’t know anything about music theory,” he says. “It might be interesting for a musician or for somebody who wants to learn about klezmer,” he adds, “but you don’t need to know what odd time signatures mean or what a harmonic minor 11th sharp scale is. I don’t think you have to even remotely know anything about music to enjoy our show.”
Dechenne, a globe-trotting, 28-year-old sideman with John Brown’s Body and a graduate of Berklee College Music, says Klezwoods’ propulsive, polyglot music speaks for itself whether to a klezmer crowd or dance hall fans of Balkan or Bohemian music. On a recent outdoor performance, for example, initially skeptical college students were converted into true believers by the band’s intoxicating klezmer buzz and international smorgasbord of swinging styles played on hypnotically interweaving strings, horns, percussion and accordion. “We did a show in Davis Square in Somerville, Mass., with a reggae band and a rock band on the bill. None of the college students there knew anything about klezmer or Balkan music, or had even heard of it before. But by the end of our 45-minute set, those kids, who went there to hear reggae music, were out there dancing and going crazy over Klezwoods music. I think it’s because we’re such a groove-oriented band,” Dechenne says.

Besides high-quality musicianship — members are all premier players on Boston’s bustling, talent-packed music scene — the well-rehearsed but totally in-the-moment band is anything but visually inert. Most particularly, its kinetic leader, the all-round wizard fiddle player and klezmer king, Joseph Kessler.

Kessler is perpetually on the go on stage, moving and bending, improvising his own athletic, hyperactive body language as he brilliantly bows away, a dynamo even at the band’s most frenetic tempos.

Kessler, who has worked with the Robert Plant/Jimmy Page reunion band, began playing classical music as a child in his hometown of Philadelphia, moving on to mastering not just classical and his beloved klezmer, but also traditional Irish music, bluegrass and beyond.

On the band’s debut disc, “Oy, Yeah!”, Kessler, in a personal touch, included a Yemenite Jewish song, “Ki Eshmera,” which had been taught to him as a child by his father, a noted cantor.

Trying to define the indefinable, Kessler calls Klezwoods’ roots sound “the music of the Ottoman Empire.” But not even this wide-sweeping geographical definition covers the band’s open-ended ventures into innumerable styles. Its varied explorations range from what Jelly Roll Morton called “the Latin tinge” to more modern, jazz-inspired improvisations, as on the freewheeling band’s homage to John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps,” which is Klezwoodsized and humorously renamed “Giant Jew.”

Klezwoods’ second and most recent release, “The 30th Meridian: From Cairo to St. Petersburg with Love,” is described by Dechenne as a geographical sketch of the band’s musical journey up the 30th meridian, moving “loosely through Cairo, Israel, Palestine, Turkey and Eastern Europe up to St. Petersburg.”

Give Klezmer A Try With Klezwoods’ New Release (Review by Bernie Whitmore, Vitality Magazine)

Before listening to The Klezwoods’ The 30th Meridian, had someone mentioned klezmer music, I wouldn’t have known what they were talking about. But as soon as I gave it a listen, something deeply encoded in my musical DNA resonated. Strongly.
This is because Klezwoods, a Boston-based ensemble, fuses bits of jazz, rock and modern attitude with the tradition of Eastern European Jewish dance and wedding/celebration music. In this contest of sounds, Jewish wedding wins, hands down. They accomplish this with almost every species of brass instrument, guitar, violin and percussion. The result? Klezmer music that, I daresay, won’t offend traditionalists, yet appeals to contemporary tastes.
The CD’s subtitle, From Cairo to St. Petersburg with Love, starts, as promised, with tracks that sound like music from the Kasbah ~ with a rogue trumpet player on the loose. Then, “Hot Wheels” enters with a rockish beat yielding to the full brass ensemble and soulful violin. “Play to Win” leads with guitar and trumpet and has some of the CD’s stronger jazz undercurrents. One of the more soulful pieces wraps it up: “January 7th Early in the Morning” is an elegiac piece, simple and short, featuring accordion and brass.
As an experiment, I shuffled The 30th Meridian with DeVotchka’s gypsy-punk SuperMelodrama CD and a collection of mid-20th century Paris cafe field recordings that I picked up somewhere on the web. The result was surprisingly seamless and uplifting. You’ll want to jump on the table and dance.

Klezwoods Puts Out a Wild, Intense, Lush New Album (Review by delarue, New York Music Daily)

Klezwoods’ new album is a blast, plain and simple. If you like one haunting melody after another, this is for you. In the spirit of the dozens of gypsy and gypsy-punk bands that have sprung up in this century, Klezwoods are taking Jewish music in the same direction. What they do can be wild, but it’s also lush and often pensive – as the music of the gypsies often is. Their new album, The 30th Meridian – From Cairo to St. Petersburg With Love – is as informed as much by jazz as it is by any other style, including wildly successful diversions into Macedonian, Serbian, Egyptian, Greek and Jamaican music. The ten-piece band’s lineup is slightly expanded from last time around, with – are you ready for this – Joe Kessler on violin, Sam Dechenne (of John Brown’s Body) on trumpet, Jim Gray on tuba, Grant Smith on drums, Greg Loughman on bass, Michael McLaughlin (of Naftule’s Dream) on accordion, exotica and cimbalom jazz genius Brian O’Neill on percussion, Alec Spiegelman (of Miss Tess’ band the Bon Temps Parade) on clarinet and sax and Tev Stevig on electric guitar and oud, plus Becky Wexler on clarinet and vocals and Daniel Linden on trombone.

Wexler is training to be a cantor – and what a great destination for her. What a voice! Her wounded, unselfconsciously soulful alto and also her chillingly lyrical, crystalline clarinet grace a traditional song simply titled Shoes, which begins as a brooding, sad Russian waltz and quickly travels to the dramatic place where Bollywood meets the Jewish diaspora. The first track is characteristically catchy but edgy, balancing the tuba at the bottom,clarinet at the top, trilling uneasy trumpet playing call-and-response with the ensemble, Egyptian style over clip-clop percussion. After that, Dechenne’s Egypt Trip goes scurrying up to a Middle Eastern crescendo, his psychedelic trumpet (go figure, duh!) breaking it down before it comes back, stately and intense.

Kessler’s scurrying violin solo hands off to Spiegelman, who hands off to the rest of the band in turn on the wickedly fun Harmonika. Likewise, voices alternate throughout the band over O’Neill’s hard-hitting drums on the Balkan-flavored Hot Wheels. A Glass of Wine, a reggae arrangment of a traditional klezmer tune, features more rapidfire, intense clarinet.

Brass Belly, a tricky Serbian-tinged tune, layers cool clarinet over a flutter brass pulse and Stevig’s absolutely amazing electric oud before the violin takes it up with a spin. Play to Win, by Stevig, a wickedly catchy, unpredictably shapeshifting song features Stevig’s guitar doing all kinds of wild spiraling phrases. After the brisk, biting oompah clarinet tune Pick Up and Go, they follow with the album’s best song, Charambe, also by Stevig. A wicked blend of 60s style psychedelic rock and klezmer, it sounds like the Electric Prunes, Stevig bending his notes to their logical (or illogical) extremes.

What’s left here? A couple of rapidfire, jauntily defiant, accordion-fueled romps, one of them by Loughman; an absolutely joyous shout-out to Israeli music; and an unexpectedly quiet wee-hours scenario to close out the album. Who is the audience for this? Anyone who loves gypsy music, or Middle Eastern music, or the klezmer repertoire. It used to be that klezmer was a gateway drug to gypsy music, now it’s vice versa. Two diasporas, two styles worshipped by people whose ancestors frequently held this music in contempt. And one of the best albums of 2012. Klezwoods plays the cd release show at Spike Hill on a killer doublebill on Sept 8 at around 9, followed by excellent skaragga band Karikatura. Klezwoods are also at City Winery for the weekly klezmer brunch at around half past eleven the following morning, Sept 9 – yikes!

The Klezwoods with Elizabeth Curran at Gallery 263, Cambridge, MA – 6/21/12 (Review by Kier Byrnes, The Noise)

With the thermometer reading 106 degrees, it’s arguably one of the hottest days of the summer. Thankfully, there’s plenty of cool air to be had at Gallery 263. But it’s not just the air conditioners contributing to the cool vibe of this intimate Central Square art gallery, the Klezwoods are in the house. The Klezwoods are a Boston-based amalgam of strings, horns, and percussion that melds the spirit of traditional klezmer and balkan music with modern grooves, improvisation and east coast attitude featuring music of the Ottoman Empire; tunes from East European countries such as Greece, Turkey, and Bulgaria. The music instrumentation features accordion, trumpet, drums, hand percussion, stand-up bass, sitting down clarinet, electric guitar, and last but not least, the rabid blue fiddle of the illustrious Joe Kessler. Behind the band is painter, Elizabeth Curran, who channels the energy of the music through her brushes and acrylics onto a nine by six foot canvas. The mural shines with bright blues, yellows and oranges in an abstract style. Her brushes move with the musical rhythms; the experience feels as if you are watching a conglomeration of Wassily Kandinsky, Franz Kline and Pable Picasso create while in a swirl of a Middle Eastern orchestra. Cheers, yells and “Heys” are happily shouted between audience and musician alike.

The Klezwoods Live at Cafe Shalom, Gloucester, MA – 11/10/12 (Review by Fr. Matthew Green, GoodMorningGloucester)

I made it to the Temple Ahavat Achim (just around the block from where I live) on Saturday for their “Café Shalom”. I am so glad I did – I kept saying “wow!” to myself for about half an hour after the music was over! The first band was “The Blueberries”, consisting of Fozzie Hill, Dave Brown, and Wolf Giandes. Great folk/blues vocals and guitar! Then came Klezwoods, a Boston klezmer band (whose leader, Joseph Kessler, is a Gloucester local). They play a sort of fusion of traditional klezmer with jazz and other middle-eastern music. I had no idea what this would be like. Although I expected it to be good, I was still blown away! They play with fantastic energy and skill. I bought their CD without hesitation about half-way through their set.

Klezwoods – “Oy Yeah!” (Review by All About

All About Jazz - read the review here!From the opening bass, snare drum and accordion of Ki Eshmera, the Boston-based Klezwoods deliver a beautifully structured and performed collection of traditional tunes on its debut, Oy Yeah!. The nine-piece band moves from haunting ballads to frenzied dance tunes with ease, adding an intriguing original tune from clarinetist Alec Spiegelman for good measure.

Klezwoods is led by violinist Joe Kessler, a versatile player who has worked with Morphine and the Robert Plant/Jimmy Page reunion band. Kessler describes Klezwoods’ music as “music of the Ottoman Empire.” It’s as good a description as any, for most of these tunes originate from East European countries such as Greece, Turkey, and Bulgaria—but it fails to convey the delight and joyousness contained within the tunes and expressed wonderfully by the band.

Ki Eshmera, a Yemenite Jewish song taught to Kessler by his father, Jack, is given a funky groove by courtesy of Greg Loughman‘s bass but there is also a plaintive quality to the tune, beautifully expressed by Sam Dechenne’s trumpet solo. In contrast, the Bulgarian Gankino Oro is unmistakably upbeat and optimistic—Tev Stevig, whose guitar playing is exceptional throughout the album, creates a fine single note solo here.

Cuperlika, from Macedonia, is another lovely tune with a sense of longing expressed by Kessler’s violin and Dechenne’s trumpet. Hey Lady! is klezmer with a hint of reggae and a touch of avant-garde, thanks to Spiegelman’s clarinet. The entire band races through Chassidic Medley No 1 with gusto, on the other hand, underpinned by Jim Gray’s richly-toned tuba and Jeremy Gustin’s urgent and driving drums.

Spiegelman’s Giant Jew is based on John Coltrane‘s Giant Steps. Speigelman leads the tune on clarinet rather than saxophone; his solo is smooth and sweet, the tune hinting at the Coltrane original rather than simply replicating it. The result references modern jazz but still sits perfectly alongside Oy Yeah‘s more traditional tunes.

Klezwoods draws its influences and tunes from across cultural, religious and political borders to create Oy Yeah! It’s an eclectic, energetic and happy album that demonstrates music’s power to lift the spirits.

Klezwoods – “Oy Yeah!” (Review by

Peter Jaques of Brass Menazeri describes klezmer as a “gateway drug” to the music of Eastern Europe. The same could be said for violinist Joe Kessler’s band Klezwoods,since that’s his background. Their debut album may be classified as klezmer, and many of its most exhilarating moments are on its Jewish songs, but the material here spans the entirety of what used to be the Ottoman Empire. Basically, it’s haunting minor-key dance music with Middle Eastern, Mediterranean and occasional latin tinges, and it pushes the envelope, its jazz-influenced, playful arrangements utilizing the whole band and giving them a richer, fuller sound than it would seem their nine members could create. The band is colossally good: Sam Dechenne on trumpet, Jim Gray on tuba, Jeremy Gustin on drums, Greg Loughman on bass, Michael McLaughlin (of Naftule’s Dream) on accordion, Brian O’Neill on percussion, Alec Spiegelman (of Miss Tess’ band the Bon Temps Parade) on clarinet and sax and Tev Stevig on electric guitar.

The opening track, a Yemenite Jewish number that Kessler learned from his father Jack (a highly regarded cantor), takes on a lush majesty, plaintive clarinet contrasting with muted trumpet, distant accordion and sweeping violin. The tricky Bulgarian dance Gankina Oro has the first of several bracingly rippling guitar solos by Stevig, this one sounding like a bouzouki but with better sustain. A Turkish folk melody, Bahar Dansi pulses along on a reggaeish beat, a playfully warped sax solo kicking off a boisterous game of hot potato between seemingly everybody in the band. They follow that with a somewhat deadpan, methodical take of Mache Teynista (The Mother-in-Law Dance), blippy tuba under tense, staccato accordion.

The highlight of the album is the slinky, hypnotic, absolutely gorgeous Cuperlika, from Macedonia, darkly pointillistic guitar giving way to the violin, accordion and finally a powerful, epic crescendo. Hey Lady sets levantine violin to a jaunty, altered tango beat with spiraling jazz guitar and a long, adrenalizing crescendo. Stevig takes his most intense solo of the night as the band vamps behind him on the Middle Eastern tune Nassam Aleyna. Syrtos is a Greek number which actually sounds more like traditional klezmer than anything else here other than the romping medley of hasidic dances that closes the album. And there’s also Giant Jew, a tongue-in-cheek klezmer take on Coltrane’s Giant Steps, Loughman’s solo bass tiptoeing deviously around the theme. The chemistry between band members makes Kessler’s split-second choreography work perfectly: as it should, considering how much fun this band is obviously having. The klezmer crowd will love this, as will anyone with a fondness for the dark, otherworldly singalong melodies and tricky rhythms of Eastern Europe. It’s out now on Either/Orchestra’s upstart label Accurate Records. Boston area fans can enjoy their cd release show on October 4 at Atwoods, 877 Cambridge St. in Cambridge.

Klezwoods – “Oy Yeah!” (Review by

Klezwoods - "Oy Yeah!"

“I know it’s a bit of a tiresome cliché when someone says ‘I know what I like’, but that was the case when the first notes of Ki Eshmera came out of the speakers. Klezwoods are a rootsy band from Boston playing a mix of Klezmer, Irish, Gypsy, bluegrass, rock and jazz, Oy Yeah!is their new album and it is a joy to listen to – a real toe tapper and if you have the energy it is an album to dance to. The ten tracks certainly have a strong vein of Jewish, Arab and Eastern European influences running through them – with the instrumentation to match: tuba, accordion, clarinet, sax, trumpet, lots of percussion, bass and guitar.

Track three, Bahar Dansi certainly has a happy, upbeat feel to it. The rest of the tracks are: Gankino Oro, Mache Teynista, Cuperlika, Hey Lady, Nassam Aleyna, Syrtos, Giant Jew and Chassidic Medley #1. I didn’t realise Boston was such a cross-roads of fertile musical inventiveness. The band is led by violinist Joe Kessler and consists of nine musicians who create this marvellous diversity of sounds. Of course there is a subtext relating to the fact that these various ethnic types of music share much and the people of the Middle East should take note of this. That aside, Oy Yeah! is a joyous album stuffed full with great tunes and emanating fantastic vibes. Highly recommended.”

Klezwoods – “Oy Yeah!” (Review by

Muzik ReviewsThere’s something about the cover art of Klezwoods’ Oy Yeah! that speaks volumes about the music. Most jazz albums have a dark image on the front of one person playing a piano or saxophone, and they’re almost never inviting. But here we have a circus-like group parading with instruments, and on the inside cover, a ferris wheel.

And that’s what you get on Oy Yeah!. None of it really fits together logically, but it blends so well and smoothly that it’s beyond enjoyable. The cover art invites you in to a jazz party, and even if you know nothing about jazz, you’ll have a good time.

Klezwoods is a nine-man band led by Joe Kessler on violin. It’s hard to even call it jazz, because each song will bring a different, almost anti-jazz culture to your mind, from Jewish to Arabic. But that’s the real beauty of the party here – whether you know anything about these cultures or you’ve never heard of them or their music, the songs will still entertain you.

Klezwoods has accomplished something very difficult on Oy Yeah! – they have made jazz accessible, fun, and listenable to even those who don’t enjoy the genre, and they have still found a way to work other cultures into their work while showing off their own styles and skill at playing. It’s a party you won’t want to miss out on.

Abbey K. Davis – Sr. Staff, October 21, 2010

Key Tracks: Bahar Dansi, Hey Lady, Ki Eshmera

Klezwoods – “Oy Yeah!” (Review by AudiophileAudition,

The unlikely emergence of Klezwoods in the world music culture can be found in the formation of the group. A local tavern asked violinist Joe Kessler to form a band for a Klezmer-Christmas event. With that spirit of adventure, Kessler (who was part of the Jimmy Page/Robert Plant No Quarter Tour), put together a top notch ensemble that would reinvigorate the genre. The joyous nature of Klezmer is updated with jazz, groove hooks, fusion and Latin nuance.

Oy Yeah!, a ten-song feisty romp, presents a musical portrait of the “Ottoman Empire”. At a brisk thirty-two minutes, the crisply arranged numbers reveal a dynamic ensemble with considerable talent. The opening song, “Ki Eshmera” is cultivated from Yemenite Jewish culture. Starting with a rhythmic bass line, the song develops a lyrical, mystical theme. Solos by clarinet (Alec Spiegelman) and violin (Kessler) provide a warm, elegant resonance. Understated trumpet blends perfectly in this organic alchemy. Tempo percolates in “Gankino Oro” (Bulgarian), as Spiegelman beaks out the saxophone for an edgy solo. Tev Stevig punctuates the track with a jazzy electric guitar. All of the musicians contribute to the coloration and deft execution of this cultural expedition.

There are numerous surprises as well. “Giant Jew,” homage to Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” is impressive in its interpretation and group dynamic. Kessler seems capable of synthesizing the mechanics of the band in any context. Greg Loughman’s bass solo is melodic, and delves into an introspective, delicate flow. A certain highlight is the Macedonian tune, “Cuperlika”. With a haunting melody expertly played by the ensemble, the moving trumpet of Sam Dechenne, and complicated violin runs of Kessler sparkle. Rhythm shifts and breaks are managed with assurance and continuity. Modern influence pervades the Turkish folk number, “Bahar Dansi” with the addition of a ska beat. It all seems to integrate with the crescendo-laden jam format.
Fans of traditional Klezmer should not be too concerned. Tracks like “Chassidic Medley No. 1” and “Mache Teynista (Mother In Law Dance)” will easily get them onto the dance floor.

Oy Yeah!…indeed!

TrackList: Ki Eshmera; Gankino Oro; Bahar Dansi; Mache Teynista (Mother In Law Dance); Cuperlika; Hey Lady; Nassam Aleyna; Syrtos; Giant Jew; Chassidic Medey No. 1

Review by Robbie Gerson

Klezwoods at Atwoods (Review by Ari Davidow of The

Atwoods in Cambridge

“…After pretending to grade papers all afternoon, I ran out to Atwoods Tavern, a Somerville establishment midway between Inman Square and Kendall Square, home to excellent local beer and some decent food, to catch the elusive “Klezwoods.” I was lured by the claim on the tavern’s website that the gig would begin at 8pm. Alas, it began at 9, a bit too close to my bedtime. But the time preceding was pleasantly filled by shmoozing with band-member Dr. Michael McLaughlin (also of Shirim, Naftule’s Dream, and the Tufts professor in charge of that school’s klezmer band).

Klezwoods was put together by Joe Kessler and McLaughlin a couple of years ago when the tavern decided that it would be kind of cool to have a “Klezmer Christmas” concert. The result fuses some of my favorite musicians from the local klezmer, balkan, and other music scenes, anchored by KCB drummer Grant Smith and including Shirim’s Jim Gray, Hebrew College cantorial student Becky Wexler on clarinet, and several people I have not yet gotten to know. The result is that rare perfection, “bar klezmer,” or perhaps more accurately, “bar music from the former Ottoman empire” because riffs ranged from Greek and Balkan melodies to Israeli music and klezmer, all interspersed with excellent soloes…I am very excited about seeing the band again. This was my idea of an excellent evening, full of good music, unexpected connections, and great beer in a congenial pub. This is a regular gig for them, so keep an eye on the calendar, or on the “Boston Jewish Music Group” on Facebook, and let’s crowd the pub up further next time!”