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Queen Kong is the next big thing in klezmer jazz

A six-person band poses, from left to right: a man seated on a stool holds a trumpet, a man stands with a clarinet, a man stands with a guitar, a man seated on a stool holds a trombone, a woman seated on a stool holds a drumstick with a drum at her feet and a man stands behind a sousaphone sitting on the ground.
Steven Lederman
Queen Kong
Toronto's Queen Kong offer a new twist on klezmer jazz.

Jazz and klezmer music are often thought of as music of the past. Toronto ensemble Queen Kong shows the modern side of this natural stylistic pairing on their new debut album, "Fray." In Yiddish, the word "fray" translates to "free." While the English meaning of "an intensely aggressive situation" lends an apt double entendre that fits Queen Kong perfectly.

Drummer and composer Lorie Wolf leads the group, with trumpeter Max Forster, guitarist Graham Campbell, trombonist Nathan Dell-Vandenberg, and sousaphone player Tom Richards. Queen Kong spikes their jazz-klezmer with punk rock fervor and the freedom of improvisation.

Klezmer is the traditional social music of Central and Eastern European Jewish communities, marked by both ritual melodies and improvisation.

Special guest Beth Silver plays cello on three songs, an instrument rarely heard in traditional Jewish music. Her namesake song "Bethema" has a mysterious darkness with complex time signatures and an impassioned solo from Silver.

Another guest, modern klezmer star Michael Winograd lends his clarinet throughout "Fray." In "Kaddish for Jonny," a meditative song introduced by Forster's trumpet melody, Winograd's clarinet moves the piece from a mellow mood to a rousing intensity.

Wolf's impressively colorful but still grooving rhythms anchored by Richards' sousaphone lend a funky New Orleans bounce to album opener "Kavod-19", also providing Dell-Vandenberg with space for a tasty trombone solo.

Our fearless bandleader puts her drumsticks aside to sing the most traditional song on the album, the Jewish folk song "Di Zun Vet Aruntergeyn (The Sun is Setting)." It's based on a pre-Holocaust poem by Moyshe-Leyb Halpern that's equal parts lullaby, love song, and a meditation on mortality.

Alternately, "East 3rd and C" is one of the more modern arrangements. Wolf wrote it for her beloved teacher, Grammy-award winning trumpeter and composer Frank London's apartment in this Jewish neighborhood in Manhattan. It's a party song with a funky beat, a dramatic solo from Winograd, and a rocking distorted guitar solo from Campbell.

Queen Kong points to the music and cultural development of New York saxophonist John Zorn, who's Tzadik Records and Masada ensemble have promoted and expanded new sounds in modern Jewish music for more than two decades.

With "Fray," Queen Kong blazes a new path to redefining the way jazz and klezmer music can sound. It's a party filled with laughter and joy, and everyone is invited.

Queen Kong plays "Bethema" from their debut album Fray.

The New Cool airs Fridays at 9 p.m., hosted by Abe Beeson and produced by KNKX Public Radio in Seattle, Wash.

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Abe grew up in Western Washington, a third generation Seattle/Tacoma kid. It was as a student at Pacific Lutheran University that Abe landed his first job at KNKX, editing and producing audio for news stories. It was a Christmas Day shift no one else wanted that gave Abe his first on-air experience which led to overnights, then Saturday afternoons, and started hosting Evening Jazz in 1998.