I last heard the celebrated America drummer and my boyhood friend Michael Sarin by accident. Back in 2006 I was participating in the Early Music festival in Bruges, Belgium, a well-preserved medieval city of gabled houses lining picturesque canals, crenelated towers, churches both opulent and austere, lots of art (Memling, Bosch, van Eyck and Michelangelo to name a few), and amply provisioned with Flemish beer, mussels, and pommes frites for the droves of tourists that overrun the place in the heat of summer.
After a long day sitting on the festival’s competition jury, I had allowed myself a substantial portion of the above-mentioned shellfish and several tall, shapely glasses of the potent local brew. This set me up for a memorable evening concert of music from New Spain by Andrew Lawrence-King and his rousing ensemble, the Harp Consort.
As I a trudged into the central square at around eleven o’clock after this long day I was greeted by the unwelcome spectacle of a teeming mass roiling to the amplified sounds of reedy ululations, thumping bass lines, ear-slapping guitar chords, keening violin effusions, and busy, boisterous drummings. The antic energy of this music echoed across the square and up the three-hundred-foot-high fifteenth-century belfry that rose directly behind the bandstand. (Spoiler alert: this is the tower from which Brendan Fraser’s character jumps to his death at the end of the 2008 movie, In Bruges). Unlike the humans below, the bell tower was unmoved by the bacchanal underway at its base.
My room in the hotel on the far side of the square had a view of the tower and therefore was on the front line of this aural assault. I groaned as I saw myself about to forfeit at least an hour of sleep to this madness—this Klezmer Madness, as it turned out.
As I made my way along the cobblestones, as far from the stage as I could get, the music stopped and the leader, clarinet wizard David Krakauer, began introducing the members of his Klezmer Madness, a group he founded in 1996 and dedicated to the Jewish music of central and eastern Europe updated with the punch of rock and funk and other influences from far beyond the Pale of Settlement.
I let Krakauer’s introductions drift past me, eager to retreat to the partial refuge of my quarters. But then I heard the following bolt from the Flemish night: “On drums: Michael Sarin!!!”
This stopped me in my tracks, seeming to me to be perhaps the biggest coincidence of my life to that point. Michael and I had grown up in the same semi-rural neighborhood on Bainbridge Island, Washington. We had been playmates since the second grade. In our teen years he turned me onto jazz and convinced me to try the occasional hand at the art form.
From an early age Michael showed diverse musical talents including, but not limited to, a comprehensive, phonographic memory for college fight songs and television show themes, all of which he would play with panache and accuracy on the piano with his two index fingers stretched out like bony drumsticks—this talent bespeaking an excellent ear and the ergonomic inclinations of the percussionist he would become, though these precocious signs are not discussed in the portrait of him to be found in the April, 2012 issue of Modern Drummer.
Needless to say, I stayed on for the rest of the show, now marveling at the inexhaustible inventiveness and unerring precision of Michael’s playing, the drummer himself remaining unfazed even when a volatile Eurotrash faction of the audience, ignited by the sparks flying from the Klezmer blaze on stage, stormed the bandstand only to be repulsed by tattooed security forces.
After the show I talked my way past those same guards and found the band, expecting Michael to be dumbfounded by the utterly unanticipated appearance of his old chum after so many years. He was not. On arriving at the train station that morning he’d seen an electric reader board announcing: “David Yearsley, Organ Recital, St. Walburga Church.”
Michael and I have remained in touch since that late summer rendezvous in the Low Countries, but it wasn’t until last Friday night at the Skaneateles Festival an hour northeast of my home in Ithaca that I heard him play again.
Instead of the approach to Bruges over flat fields reclaimed from the sea, the trip to Skaneateles involves motoring through rolling farm country and wooded hills. Whereas the stagnant, engineered waterways of Flanders often stink with fish kills in the rising temperatures of August, the town of Skaneateles clasps the north end of the eponymous lake, held to be one of the cleanest in the world. Unfiltered, it provides the bulk of the water supply for nearby Syracuse.
Few cities come close to the urban beauty of Bruges, its buildings and squares ranging from the medieval to the baroque, the city fabric further graced by a few nineteenth-century parks. But Skaneateles must count as of one of the loveliest of American towns with its esplanade, columned mansions, statuesque churches, and main intersection of brick and stone storefronts. Long a resort town for the better folk of Syracuse and even distant New York City, Skaneateles is also full of tourists come August, though these folks have come by car rather than, as in Bruges, by other more civilized means. Automobiles line the streets and fill the parking areas in front of ante-bellum bed-and-breakfasts hosting wedding receptions and family reunions.
Yes, Skaneateles has a skirting of hideous McMansions and golf-club developments, garishly lighted gas stations and low-slung churches with electric reader broads painted with American flags, but compared to the usual suburban blight of this and any other north American region, it’s relatively benign in aesthetic terms.
A decade on from the Bruges escapade, David Krakauer, who boasts considerable and richly deserved celebrity at home but more especially abroad, has not brought one of his over-amplified bands but a mostly acoustic quartet of clarinet, accordion, electric bass guitar, and drums. At Skaneateles his group is given the second half of an evening program entitled “Pathways in Folk Music” that begins with two piano trios staffed by different musicians. The first of these is the gentle modernism of twentieth-century Swiss composer Frank Martin’s Trio on Irish Themes, which gently subverts, often with quirky syncopations and ambiguously hovering harmonies, the mystic rusticity of the melodies the composer pillaged at the behest of his Irish-American patron. This unlikely list of ingredients—Swiss composer living in Paris going Irish at the behest of an American expatriate—would have drifted off into a narcotic emerald haze, more absinthe than Eire, if not for the tactful impulses and infinitely subtle shadings of pianist Xak Bjerken’s additions to the multi-cultural mélange. Next up was Smetana’s Trio in G minor, an overheated ode to Bohemian nationalism; climax heavy and prone to kitsch, it made me think of a snorting lover who takes the occasional break from his thrustings to tippy-toe pirouette around the lushly scented boudoir.
Krakauer and company banished these unsettling visions. In place of the often-ponderous vibrato of the strings of the first half, came the clarinetist’s ecstatic quails and shakes, his fingers tremoring above the keys, his head thrown back as he danced to the lip of the stage.
The organ that fills the front of the staid church provides an almost surreal backdrop to the whirling dances retrieved from a vanished Jewish Europe—though preserved on the 78s Krakauer insatiably devoured as he developed his comprehensive knowledge of, and astounding facility for this repertoire. Fueled by his boundless imagination, these tunes were joyously received by a waspy audience often urged into physical motion by these venerable tunes as well as by Krakauer’s own originals, updating his profound knowledge of the Klezmer tradition with the flourishes of his jazz idol Sydney Bechet and funk blasts of more recent vintage. His frenzied improvisations brim with boisterous trills, fleet figurations, sometimes climaxing in ear-bending acoustic effects.
For all the glorious excess of the front man’s playing, it is the fiercely supportive commentary of Krakauer’s long-time drummer Michael Sarin that keeps the band (in Skaneateles made up of two substitutes on bass and accordion) on track through the swerves and sallies. The timbral shifts Sarin effects with his array of soft mallets, brushes, and sticks demonstrate an energized nuance that lends endless variety to a music that revels in repetition—as all really good dance music should. Above the bedrock of his beat, the spontaneous snap of Sarin’s snare and the sharp laughter of his cymbals seem always to come at exactly the perfect moment, effected by lightning quick hands and feet gifted with the flair and canniness of a great and gifted improvising accompanist, who on a few necessary occasions bursts into the foreground like summer fireworks over a choppy lake.
Had they been transported to that most unlikely of venues for their art—the First Presbyterian Church in Skaneateles, New York—last Friday, the Hasidic musicians of yore would certainly have marveled at, and been swept along by this ever-shifting confrontation with their music, one that literally moves people of all persuasions.