A Veteran Klezmer Bassist Steps Out Front
04/08/2010
Special to the Jewish Week
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Jim Guttmann was there at the beginning.

In 1980 he ran into Hankus Netsky, who was looking for a bass player for a new venture. Guttmann, a bassist, was "working at Rosie's Bakery" in Cambridge, Mass., so when Netsky asked if he was interested in playing Jewish music, he quickly replied in the affirmative although, he admits today, "I didn't know what he was talking about." He found out soon enough; the band had a concert two weeks later, at which Guttmann played.

The group was the Klezmer Conservatory Band and, 30 years later, Guttmann is one of only two original members still in the group that most fans would point to as one of the pioneers of the klezmer revival.

But Guttmann has worked in many more musical idioms, from jazz to Latin to classical to bluegrass, as his first CD as a leader, "Bessarabian Breakdown," amply testifies. Although the set is made up of mostly klezmer tunes, it is impossible to miss the other musical influences and flavors that run throughout the record. The album feels like a joyous and explosive release of 40 years of musical ideas.

It is.

Guttmann, 62, says that what links the variegated sounds on the album is "what they don't have in common: I don't have to go boom-boom-boom-boom," mimicking the most repetitive bass line imaginable.

"All of those tunes make me happy," he says. "I love playing those tunes."

He runs through several of the album's highpoints to illustrate his thesis.

"The [Leon] Schwartz medley came from hearing Mimi Rabson [another KCB original, who plays on the album] play the sirba [a Romanian dance] at weddings. I knew I wanted to expand that to showcase her. The first thing that happened was the idea of treating 'Bessarabian Breakdown' as a hip-hop tune. I thought the old klezmer tune 'Gypsy' would be a great guajira [a Cuban campesina rhythm]. It reminded me of a [Afro-Cuban percussionist] Mongo Santamaria tune I loved. I thought, 'Wouldn't Art [Bailey, leader of the Romanian music-based Orkestra Popila] love to do this?' And Art loved to do it."

Ultimately, the idea of stepping out in front of a band for the first time came from an even more basic impulse, Guttmann admits.

"I just wanted to have something to say, 'This is what I do, what I can do,'" he says.

Ironically, although it was his connection to Netsky and the New England Conservatory of Music that brought Guttmann into the KCB and gave a new direction to his career that has sustained him for three decades, he wasn't a student at NEC. A native New Yorker, Guttmann has a degree in psychology from Adelphi University and a master's in mass communication from Emerson College. He and Netsky knew each other from work they had done in Boston edition of jazz pianist Jaki Byard's Apollo Stompers.

Working with the KCB had the added value of giving Guttmann much of the same knowledge and technique that his bandmates were getting as conservatory students.

"I got all the coaching those guys got," Guttmann says with a laugh. "The Conservatory was a center for my musical life, even though I didn't go there."

Why has it taken so long for Guttmann to step into the spotlight?

"I spent a lot of time doing this boom-boom-boom, and I really enjoy doing that with a great band," he says. "I feel like the engine. With [drummer] Grant Smith, who's been my partner in crime for 25 years, we drive the band. We've taken a certain pride in doing that. A good rhythm section can make a mediocre front line sound great, and a mediocre rhythm section can drag a great front line into their mediocrity."

But 30 years of driving the band, added to over 20 years of teaching at KlezKamp and playing in its annual staff concert weren't enough for Guttmann. After three years of on-and-off work and false starts, he finally managed to get all the musicians he wanted in the same place at the same time to record his album.

Will he repeat the effort soon or will we have to wait for another 30 years for a second Jim Guttmann-led recording?

"I've got to see what happens with this album first," he says, laughing.

Jim Guttmann will be performing music from his first CD as a leader, "Bessarabian Breakdown" at Joe's Pub (425 Lafayette St.), Monday, April 12, 9:30 p.m. For information, call (212) 539-8778. The album is available from CDBaby.

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