Most musicians would be mortified if their audiences laughed at them when they began their set, but Margot Leverett has come to expect it.
Inevitably, as her band, the Klezmer Mountain Boys, begin playing a klezmer tune then suddenly switch, without missing a beat, into a bluegrass tune, the audience will laugh at the abrupt musical leap.
It’s a natural reaction since, at first glance, there could barely seem to be two styles more different than klezmer and bluegrass: one the product of the Old World’s Jewish ghettos of Eastern Europe; the other, the product of the rural backwoods of the southern United States.
The Klezmer Mountain Boys’ eponymous debut album on Traditional Crossroads proves, however, that there are some strong commonalities. Both genres are not secular music, Leverett noted, but come from ethnic groups where religion is a strong influence. Both are also the product of people who led hard lives and for whom the music was an expression of joy and for marking celebrations.
“Both kinds of music have that mixture of laughter and tears,” Leverett said. “They complement each other. They bring out something in each other you might not otherwise notice.”
The unlikely project grew out of Leverett’s own exploration of various types of fiddle tunes for transposition to the clarinet. Leverett—the original clarinet player in the Klezmatics—began to wonder how her playing would sound accompanied by a string band, as opposed to the usual klezmer instrumentation.
She contacted an old friend, mandolin player Barry Mitterhoff, and began to assemble a band of players who had experience in both klezmer and bluegrass. Their first meeting in New York was canceled in the wake of the attacks of 9/11, but was eventually rescheduled several months later. The musicians were still stunned from the attacks, Leverett said, and were barely up for playing, much less playing the jokey juxtaposition of which they had been talking.
When they finally sat down to play, Leverett said, they were surprised to find that “the fun idea was just gone. This was something altogether else. It was really soulful and it was really deep.”
In subsequent get-togethers, the band members would toss their various sheet music on the table and instinctively mix and match tunes as they went along. “It was like looking for the right key to fit a lock,” Leverett said. Instead of playing familiar tunes from the klezmer repertoire, Leverett brought songs that were given to her by a group of Russian musicians she had serendipitously been matched with for a short tour of the United States a few years ago.