In recent years, the music programs at Yiddish cultural festivals like Ashkenaz, taking place at Harbourfront Centre this weekend (August 31 through September 2), have become showdowns between the klezmer traditionalists and the radical klezmer avant garde. As the emotionally charged debate about how Jewish music should evolve while preserving its roots rages on, the voices representing non-klezmer forms are often drowned out, if not left out of the dialogue entirely.
Adventurous downtown New York pianist Anthony Coleman -- key-man of choice for both John Zorn and Marc Ribot -- isn't the sort to sit quietly on the sidelines. But neither is he a joiner.
So rather than jump into the klezmer fracas, Coleman has spent the past few years exploring the connections between Latin and Jewish music with his piano trio Sephardic Tinge, and more recently with his Professionales combo, debuting for Toronto audiences at Ashkenaz.
"Klezmer is great, and we all love it," says Coleman from his New York pad, "but like most musicians on the downtown scene, I didn't grow up with it. My parents used to play Bob Dylan and Billie Holiday around the house. And I don't think my grandparents were really into klezmer either.
"From the time my family moved to Brooklyn when I was 10, I was surrounded by Latin music. This was during the late-60s peak of Nuyorican salsa, and the sound was everywhere. It was like folk music for me.
"All the jazz composers I loved -- Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington, Herbie Nichols -- had done pieces with a Latin inspiration. So when I started getting involved in Jewish music festivals in the early 90s and everyone else was going klezmer, I began looking for ways of hooking up Jewish music with Latin music just to be different. It went over well, so I kept at it and got deeper into it with Sephardic Tinge."
However refreshingly innovative Coleman's take on Jewish music has been in Sephardic Tinge recordings like the recent Our Beautiful Garden Is Open (Tzadic), many detractors have question the Jewishness of a music that has more of a Mediterranean than a Middle Eastern swing.
"After a concert in Italy, an Israeli violinist asked me, "What's Jewish about your music?' I was completely dumbfounded, since 70 per cent of what we played came from the centuries-old Sephardic tradition.
"So I explained that although he didn't recognize the signifiers, the music wasn't any less Jewish. If I wanted to be mean I could've come back at him with "What's so Jewish about Israeli music based on a sound that didn't exist before 1948?' I mean, they had to fabricate a whole ethnicity overnight, and the resulting musical hybrid is completely bizarre."
So instead trying to bring out the Jewish component of his music, Coleman has pumped up the Latin flava in his percussion-heavy Professionales combo. The group features his bandmates from Marc Ribot's Los Cubanos Postivos, Roberto Rodriguez and Brad Jones.
"We'd been playing together for four years in Los Cubanos Postivos before I had the revelation that we were a rhythm section. It might sound obvious, but to me a rhythm section is something unique unto itself that goes way beyond a pianist, bassist and percussionist playing together.
"Roberto, Brad and I have a special connection, and although we'll be playing some Sephardic Tinge music at Ashkenaz, because it's relevant, it'll have a different weight. We're a very heavy rhythm section."
For an encore, Coleman will provide the musical accompaniment for Alexander Granovsky's 1925 silent comedy, Jewish Luck (starring the Chaplinesque Solomon Mikhoels), which screens as part of the festival's film component. It's a challenge that Coleman enjoys for a change of pace.
"I'm a bit of a cinephile, and I've toured with a bunch of different silent films, including Jewish Luck. I really like playing in different contexts. A couple of years ago I got to play in a wedding band and had a great time trying to be creative without having the grandparents scream at us for being too noisy.
"Like accompanying films, it's fun to do once in a while, but if I had to make a living at it it would probably drive me insane."
ANTHONY COLEMAN's Professionales performing as part of Ashkenaz at Harbourfront Centre's NOW Late Night Lounge (235 Queen's Quay West), Saturday (August 31), 11 pm. Free. 416-973-3000.
Jewish LUCK with musical accompaniment by ANTHONY COLEMAN, screening as part of Ashkenaz at Harbourfront's Studio Theatre (235 Queen's Quay West), Monday (September 2), 4:30 pm. $10. 416-973-4000.