Amsterdam: a prologue

Over the next few days I’ll be posting about my trip to Amsterdam in installments, but before I dive into all of the details from the past couple weeks, here’s some backstory on how I ended up there.

I’ve been playing with Ezekiel’s Wheels pretty much since moving to Boston back in the fall of 2009. It was the first non-Oberlin affiliated band I joined after moving to the area, and there were some funny circumstances leading to my involvement, which are actually remarkably in line with the DIY/riding-a-sequence-of-coincidences personality of the band. I basically ran into an accordion player that I had met two years before up at KlezKanada (a week-long klezmer festival held just north of Montreal every August) on the street at Honk! (a weekend-long activist street band festival held in Davis Square every October) when I first arrived in Boston. He mentioned playing with a klezmer band in need of a bassist, so I offered my services. However, before all five of us could play together, he moved out of town. I joined the band anyway, not really knowing what to expect, and have been happily playing house shows, farmers markets, and in the subway with them ever since. Fast forward to this past fall, when we added Abigale, another fiddle player, to appease our fiddler Jon, who wanted more flexibility in taking gigs (or not), marking our first (and only) lineup change in the past 3 years.

Anyway, we used to play in the T pretty regularly (as in, weekly during the morning rush hour) along the north side of the red line. We developed a pretty good following doing that and often came away with a decent haul (monetarily and gig-offer-wise) for what was basically an hour-long rehearsal. Through playing in the subway, we met Margery, who was probably the first person (ourselves included) to actually take us seriously as a band. She’s pretty well connected in the Boston Jewish music world, and contacted several venues and local organizations on our behalf. One such organization was the Boston Jewish Music Festival. Around the time she contacted them (earlier this year), they were busy putting together their annual festival. As a new addition this year, they were organizing the so-called Klezmer Idol competition to close the festival, in which several local klezmer bands were participating for a chance to win prizes and klezmer glory. Margery worked her magic and suddenly Ezekiel’s Wheels was added to the list of competitors.

We didn’t really take Klezmer Idol super seriously to begin with–we saw it as kind of gimmicky and silly, but we recognized that there would be a lot of people attending it, and that it would be great to get on the Boston Jewish Music Festival’s radar. So we arranged a 12-minute set of tunes from our repertoire, as well as the Britney Spears tune “Crazy” (we felt that we needed to represent our klezmer-infused pop covers, as it is an important part of our identity as a band, hilariously enough). We showed up at Klezmer Idol not really knowing what to expect, or really what we were even competing for, but we were instantly excited by the medals inscribed with “Klezmer Idol” that every participant received, and checked the whole night off as a win even before starting to play.

Even at the Klezmer Idol competition we were up against bands more established than ourselves, bands who regularly played weddings and other events in the area, who actually had CDs and other merch. But between being one of the youngest (and most energetic) bands to play, and having a really polished set, we ended up winning the title of Klezmer Idol, as well as (more importantly) some free studio time to record what would become our first EP. Joey Baron, one of the organizers of the BJMF, also recommended that we check out the International Jewish Music Festival in Amsterdam and apply to their competition, a suggestion that only our clarinetist Nat took seriously.

So Nat sent in our newly finished EP and an application on our behalf to the IJMF over the summer and told all of us to block out the dates in our calendars just in case–a request that all of us basically ignored, figuring there was no way we were actually going to end up there. But sure enough, at the end of the summer we got an email from the festival inviting us to come play, which was the first big shocker of the whole Amsterdam experience.

We quickly got organized to figure out the details for our trip. We only had about two months to prepare ourselves musically and financially to go abroad. The festival had invited 24 bands from all over the world (meaning mostly Europe and Israel) to come play, but couldn’t offer us much in terms of financial assistance. So we did what any creative project in need of money does: we put together a kickstarter campaign. Thanks to a super homemade video and the support of family, friends, as well as complete strangers, we were able to raise over $6,000 for airfare, lodging, food, an upright bass rental, and other expenses.

We were also busy figuring out what we wanted to play for the festival. Our instructions were to prepare two 15-minute sets, and to be prepared to play a 45-minute set, in case we won. The way we were told the festival was going to work was that we’d play our first 15-minute set in the semi-final round, and if we were selected to move to the finals, we’d also get to play our other 15-minute set, and if we won, we’d get a full 45-minute set at the winners concert. These details changed several times leading up the festival, most notably with the introduction of a required tune that every band would have to perform. So not only did we have to put together and polish two separate sets that showed off the range of stuff we can do as a band, raise all of the money for our trip, and clear our schedules for the time we’d be away, we also had to figure out how to arrange the Ladino tune “La Rosa Enflorence” and be able to perform it in under 4 minutes, so we wouldn’t go over our 15-minute time limit.

After listening to all of the different bands on the IJMF website we came to the conclusion that they introduced the required tune because all of the ensembles were so musically diverse, they had to have some sort of litmus test to help judge between them. Even though the tune itself is relatively simple, coming up with a collective arrangement was extremely difficult. We sort of got bogged down with overanalyzing what the judges might be looking for from the arrangement and trying to do things that the other bands might not think to do. We wanted to show off many different elements of what we can do both technically and musically, which resulted in many frustrating hours of trying out different keys, different time signatures, as well as adding new sections. After each rehearsal we would go home tired and annoyed about not making any real progress on it.

Two weeks before leaving, we still didn’t have an arrangement that we all could agree upon, so we had a really long afternoon rehearsal complete with chalkboard to keep track of ideas and finally came up with a form that atleast everyone could live with, that more or less went along with the story of the song. We decided to open with a short doina-esque bowed bass solo, which lead into the rhythmless first statement of the melody (this was something I really fought for, wanting to showcase some kind of melodic bow work during our first set in the contest). From there, the meter came in and Pete came up with a trombone interlude that wove itself between reiterations of the melody to both break up the tune and provide space to show off improvisation within the band. Abigale took the second time through the melody on violin, which lead to Nat playing the tune on clarinet and double timing the tempo. At the climax of the arrangement, Pete comes in with drawn out statement of the melody over top of everyone, which gets cut off by the bowed bass again with some improvised statements to first convey anger, and then softens to longing.

Abstract summaries aside, I do really appreciate that the arrangement demonstrates how roles get tossed around within the band–we’re constantly trading between playing melodies and more supportive parts. Additionally, even though we have a set structure to our arrangements, there is still a huge amount of improvisation that happens within the form, and nothing really gets played the same way twice.

The couple weeks leading up to departure, we were all super busy and getting together literally every time our schedules all lined up, even if just for an hour in various parts of the city. We played for as many friends would listen to us (with special shout outs to Jeff, Ariel, and all of my housemates for open ears and critical suggestions). Nat and I hand-stamped and -stickered roughly 80 new CDs to bring to Europe and to use as thank yous for kickstarter backers. We were all rushing around to get odds and ends in order before leaving. Personally, this meant a crazy week of rehearsals for gigs happening immediately after returning, a recording session, squeezing in a few students as to not miss too many lessons, and making sure all of my home co-op chores were covered in my absence. But it all came together, and around 6:30 pm on October 8th, all nervous and excited, we made our way to Logan Airport.

(Tales from Ezekiel’s Wheels at the International Jewish Music Festival coming soon!)

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