Jake Shulman-Ment is recognized as one of the best klezmer fiddlers around, one who is steeped in the musical traditions of Hungarian Jews and the folk music that surrounded them.
So it’s ironic that his new project grew from his need to break away from his own klezmer roots.
“I wanted to do something that relieved me a little bit from the constraints of saying ‘This is a klezmer project,’” Shulman-Ment, 34, admitted. “It is, because I’m a klezmer violinist. But I wanted to get together with people and not think about what kind of music it is.”
Those other people — rock-influenced guitarist Yossi Fruchter, rugged drummer and percussionist Richie Barshay and vocalist Eléonore Weill, who sings with a plangent emotional appeal — form the new band Midwood. The group will launch its debut CD, “Out of the Narrows” (Chant Records), next week at the Museum at Eldridge Street (Thursday, May 31, 7 p.m., 12 Eldridge St., eldridgestreet.org).
“They’re all very deep musicians who are really versatile,” Shulman-Ment said of his compatriots. “The main place where we converge is the Jewish music and klezmer. So we just decided to get together and play around with these melodies and do some originals of mine and see where it went.”
Where Midwood’s music goes, inevitably, is the result of the disparate musical paths of its four members.
“The idea of blending a lot of different musical influences is inherent in the klezmer tradition,” Shulman-Ment said in a telephone interview last week. “That’s what is so rich and special about it. It literally is the product of tons of different cultural influences, coming together and forming this tradition that has no borders and is by nature a kind of wandering tradition, a tradition of diaspora.”
On “Out of the Narrows,” the Old-World elegance of Shulman-Ment’s authoritative klezmer fiddle plays against the whiplash swagger of Fruchter’s guitar, Barshay’s muscular drumming and Weill’s emotive singing. “It took a couple of years of playing together and letting it wander, and this is what came out,” Shulman-Ment said with a bit of wonder in his voice. “It came out feeling really authentic, in the sense that it sounds like us. Like klezmer from New York in the time we’re in here.”
Shulman-Ment’s influence on Midwood’s sound is unmistakable; it’s the stock in which the other players’ ingredients are marinating. Of Barshay’s “complex, rhythmic” drumming Shulman-Ment said, “He can fill the roles of an entire orchestra. That’s why we felt we didn’t need a bass player. Not having a bass gives it a sense of uprootedness and wandering. He’s so sensitive to timbre that it works.”
Fruchter’s experience in the “experimental rock/free improv thing in a Jewish context” seems liberating to Shulman-Ment. “I’m an improviser but I was never involved in that scene, didn’t play a lot of that kind of stuff,” he explained. “Having him coming from [that musical background] means we’re incorporating something I’ve been around but never done before.”
The French-born Weill only appears on two of the CD’s nine tracks, but her impact is such that she has blended into the ensemble as a full-fledged fourth partner, drawing on her training on hurdy-gurdy and flutes.
“When she plays, there’s something really special about Eléonore,” the bandleader said. “The whole mood changes. There’s a magic to her presence and the way she phrases.”
Shulman-Ment isn’t given to grand pronouncements, so when he suggests that the musical journey Midwood is taking might be a useful metaphor for the larger community, it registers strongly.
“[We’re] drawing from an old tradition that has a lot to teach us about the way we live now. Borders are getting tighter and tighter and tension is rising between different groups of people. … Mobility is going to become increasingly important. We have a lot to learn from nomads and the diaspora.”