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Klezmer jazz duo takes its ‘maiden voyage’ in T.O.

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Clarinettest Joel Rubin, left, and pianest Uri Caine [John Zorn photo]

Joel Rubin has performed his music all over the world over several decades, but March 2 will mark his first-ever Toronto gig – and his first concert in Canada since the 1980s.

The show also marks another first: it will be the first joint performance between the klezmer musician and jazz artist Uri Caine since the release of their album Azoy Tsu Tsveyt in 2011.

The album bridges each artist’s sounds, creating a musical blend that Rubin hopes will resonate with the audience when they perform at St. George the Martyr Church in Toronto at a concert presented by the Music Gallery and the Ashkenaz Festival.

“This [will be] our maiden voyage in a live context,” Rubin said. “Toronto gets the scoop.”

Caine, a pianist from Philadelphia, has 22 albums to his name. On this album, he joined Rubin, on clarinet, playing klezmer tunes in a non-traditional manner. Rubin, wrote two original songs for the album and chose the rest of the repertoire, which consists of arrangements of traditional tunes, as well as songs based on his friends’ music.

Rubin, who is originally from Los Angeles, grew up listening to Yiddish music, but said he was never interested in it as a child.

“I found out long after my grandfather died that he probably came from some kind of a klezmer background,” he said, explaining that he was probably a wedding musician in Ukraine – though not necessarily a very good one, he joked.

Rubin studied classical clarinet and spent a year playing freelance in New York City. He followed that with a move to Boston, where he was introduced to klezmer musicians, which inspired him to form his own klezmer band.

Once he got started, he never looked back, he said.

Initially, it was the virtuosity of the clarinet players that drew him to the music style.

“It had a whole kind of world of expression that was familiar yet not that familiar,” he said. “Once I started playing it, I found I could do it well pretty rapidly, and it just seemed a pretty natural way of expressing on the clarinet.”

Learning to play klezmer was a bit like learning a new language – just like learning jazz, blues or any other style, he said. “I just had to learn the vocabulary.”

The trick was figuring out how to learn to play it like the skilled older players he had seen perform. Once he matched their sound, it became a question of finding his own voice. That became something of a crisis for him in the late 1980s, he said, adding that it took it until the late ’90s that he felt he found it.

During that time, he left the United States and moved to Berlin, where he stayed for 14 years. The decision to move was a mix of discovering there was more interest for his music in Europe than in North America and getting fed up with American politics.

While in Europe, he wrote his PhD in musicology, and then in 2003, he moved back to the States to teach. These days, he runs the music performance program and teaches musicology at the University of Virginia.

Teaching klezmer means he had to approach the style from an academic eye, rather than acquiring the techniques “like a baby,” copying what he heard from other people.

However, he doesn’t think teaching has changed the way he writes music, since he approaches writing, teaching and playing from different standpoints. For example, when he’s performing, he still considers the structure of the music, but he focuses on being in the moment with the music and his fellow performers.

“Playing live music, when it’s really good, you lose your sense of self and join a larger unit – even if it’s a duo,” he said. “That doesn’t happen very often.”

He hopes it’ll happen when he plays with Caine in Toronto, and they plan to use the performance to figure out where to take this duo in the future.

“We can sit back and decide if we should pursue it and make another album,” Rubin said.

For tickets to the concert, visit the website, ashkenazfestival.com.

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