Arts & Culture

Jazz Is the New Klezmer: An Interview with Yoshie Fruchter

Yoshie Fruchter gets around. Besides being a member of half a dozen bands, from the children’s parody band Shlock Rock to guesting with Pharaoh’s Daughter, he’s made a name for himself in the few short years since he moved to … Read More

By / January 27, 2009

Yoshie Fruchter gets around. Besides being a member of half a dozen bands, from the children’s parody band Shlock Rock to guesting with Pharaoh’s Daughter, he’s made a name for himself in the few short years since he moved to Brooklyn from his hometown of Silver Spring, MD.

It’s easy to chalk Yoshie’s existence until that point up to the classic story of small-town-boy-makes-it-big. But between the lines, Fruchter has a lot of stories–his mother is a full-time arts educator in the yeshiva system, and his father is a versatile musician who, among his own accolades, was babysat by Elvis as a child.

One of my rabbis used to say that lineage is nothing but a bunch of zeroes, and you’re either the one in front of it, or you’re just another zero–and the younger Fruchter is carving out his own niche in music. His debut album, Pitom, was recently released by the venerable experimental jazz label Tzadik Records, and he has a veritable bunch of talent that’s all his own numeral. Jewcy spoke to Yoshie about his record, his band, and technical klezmer terms that will get you punched out in a bar.

Name: Yoshie Fruchter

Birthday: February 1, 1982 Hometown: Silver Spring Marital status: Married (to occasional New York Times – and Jewcy – contributor and food writer Leah Koenig) Links: www.pitommusic.com, www.myspace.com/pitom Favorite book: The Picture of Dorian Gray Your biggest influence that would surprise other people: High holiday wailing Best spot to play music: Zebulon (in Williamsburg) Favorite Muppet: Grover You have an unusual career trajectory. Before Pitom, you released an album of songs from the POV of different biblical personalities with your father. And you’ve got your foot in a lot of different projects — you play bass for reggae-folk artist Chana Rothman, the jam band Soulfarm, and freelance with other groups including Eitan Katz and even Shlock Rock. How do you know which parts are you? I try to inject parts of myself into whatever I’m doing — and I think part of myself gets injected, whether I want it to or not. No matter what kind of music I’m playing at the time, I want to do everything I can to make it as good as possible. That said, the projects that mean the most to me are the ones that I’ve personally created and produced. "Beyond the Book" was a fun project, and a great learning process for me, both as a songwriter and producer.  Working on it with my dad was also really special.  But I was also in a zone at that point where I was thinking more like a singer songwriter.  These days, with Pitom, I’m more about exploring instrumental ideas and raw sounds. I think the "me" changes from day to day with every idea that I absorb.  Right at this moment, Pitom is where I’m at, and I am really finding myself enjoying leading this band and the excitement of performance. I’m also excited to be included with an incredible cadre of artists on Tzadik Records, a label with an aesthetic and artistic vision that I very much relate to. How did it feel to get signed to Tzadik? It’s a label that, like, 95% of people in this world have never heard of, and 5% completely idolize. Do you see it as a start, or do you want to be there forever? I was definitely excited to become part of a label whose music I’d been enjoying and influenced by for years before.  I was also happy because the music that we were making was such a perfect fit for Tzadik’s aesthetic.  I am extremely humbled to be part of a catalogue that includes artists like Marc Ribot, Anthony Coleman and, of course, John Zorn.  This is our first record and it is still quite new, so I’m not sure what the future holds.  But I plan to keep creating music under wPitom.hatever circumstances come my way.  So far the critical response from reviews and radio has been really positive and enthusiastic so we’ll take the releases one at a time. What’s your songwriting process like? Do you play through ideas with the band, or do you like to have each song outlined before you share it?   When I started Pitom, I felt like I really had to have my stuff together. I had just moved to the city, and I was basically putting everything together from scratch.  I found myself writing very specific parts that had to be played a certain way in my head or the song didn’t work.  As the band began to gel, it became more of a collaborative process.  I still write sketches for all the music, but now, the band works together to mold the tunes. We love talking about how your father’s babysitter was Elvis, but you can never talk about it too much. You come from a pretty musical family — your sister Ora performs puppetry, Temim is the drummer and singer for the Shondes, and your father plays his own stuff and gigs with everyone else in the universe. Do you think it’s something in the genes? Do you think just raising your kids around creative stuff will turn them into creative people?   Though I got some great genes from my folks — they’re incredible people — I think that most of it was just having creativity around. On any given rainy Sunday when we were kids, our mom would set us up with an art project instead of letting us watch cartoons. I no longer do weekly art projects, but I think that being exposed to different kinds of art, music and literature growing up can have a great affect in just instilling a desire for things that are NEW. And, maybe I should start the weekly art projects again. How is writing music and being creative different since you got married a few months ago? Do you feel obliged to, like, write love songs about your wife–and do you think it’s different for you and other nontraditional bands than, say, Gloria Estefan or Jack Johnson? Everything that affects my life works its way into my music somehow or another, and being in love with someone makes it even more so. Leah has been around since the band started, and she’s always served as an inspiration for the music that I write. Now that we live together, she definitely sees and hears my process more closely and she has been a great editor in telling me what works and what doesn’t.  In turn, I edit her articles. Do you have conflicts balancing your music and your Judaism? Or, totally separately, trying to make it as a professional musician and your Judaism?   Theoretically, it can be a struggle – but, in my life, it’s been both a challenge and a blessing. Being raised an Orthodox Jew meant I couldn’t play gigs on Friday nights, but it also connected me to a world of Jewish music that lets me make enough money to support the music that I want to make.  Also, I find that the break that I take on Shabbat from performing and playing gives me a good time for reflection and distance from my practice.  I’m usually able to connect to music differently, through prayer and singing traditional songs.  But there have definitely been numerous opportunities that I have not been able to take advantage of because of observance. It’s weird how, in this age when people are trying to sneak Jewish references into every song they do to attract the "Jewish market," you find a lot of stuff that’s tangentially Jewish, or Jewish for obvious kitsch value. You’re obviously deeply into your Judaism — but at the same time, you’re composing original instrumental music. Do you ever feel like you need to be demonstrably Jewish onstage, or in your writing?   The question of what is considered "Jewish," and whether or not our music can be strongly considered as such, is completely so subjective. Some people see the Jewish element as kind of a loose presence, and some people tell me it’s right there in front. There are definitely some concrete Jewish elements to Pitom songs, some freigish modality, some klezmer phrasing — Freigish modality? What does that mean? "Freigish" is a node, or a scale, in klezmer music; it’s one of the most popular nodes. If your editors give you trouble, I guess you can say "Klezmer and Jewish cantorial modality" — it’s probably more understandable that way, anyway. For me, Jewish music is such a part of my psyche that it seems to come out in everything that I write. Sometimes it’s a whole traditional Jewish melody; sometimes it’s just an emotion. At a recent show, someone came up to me afterwards and told me that the intense rocking and swaying that I was doing during the performance reminded them of a religious Jew praying fervently on Yom Kippur.  And it made me think — you know what? That’s exactly what I am channeling. Years of Jewish song around tables in yeshiva, years of listening to my father blow shofar on Rosh Hashanah, years of wearing my yarmulke in places where no one else was.  It’s just a part of who I am. Maybe you can hear it, maybe you can’t — but it’s there, and that’s what makes it Jewish. Where do you get your song titles from?   Our song titles come from various ridiculous places, usually spur of the moment thematic ideas that the tune reminds me of. "Lungs and Spleen" is based on a class I took with [klezmer musician, singer, and dancer] Michael Alpert in which he described traditional Jewish food as containing these animal organs. When I was forming Pitom, I knew from the beginning that I wanted to have a Jewish presence in the music, but I wasn’t quite sure how it was going to manifest itself.  Originally, the band was called the Plain Hex Quartet — based on a book from my childhood — but that didn’t really convey the message I wanted. Leah actually came up with the name Pitom, which means "suddenly" in Hebrew.  Since I believe the music can be excitingly jarring at times, and leaves you peeking around every corner for what’s going to happen next, I felt that Pitom was an effective, concise and catchy way to achieve this effect and establish the music as a fundamentally Jewish language. I found out later that "pitom" in modern Hebrew also means "ventriloquism" (or so I was told) which was coincidental since I am working with my sister Ora on building a visual puppet performance element to the music. What are you working on now? I’ve been writing more material for the band, and I’ve been trying to perform as much as possible.  We just got back from Washington DC with Gutbucket, and we’re working on some other touring stuff for the spring and summer.  It has been fun to see what different musical directions the band can go in and establish different identities for the band while still staying true to our original vision.  As I mentioned above, my sister and I are working on a visual puppet element to the music, so we’ll keep you posted on that. Outside of Pitom, I just finished a new record with Soulfarm, and I’ll be going into the studio with the North African fusion band Asefa in the next couple of months. Is there anything, musically or other art-wise, that you want to try doing now that you’ve cut your album? If you had the freedom to do anything, time-wise and financially, what would your next project be? I’ve been so focused on the release of this record and composing material for the band that I haven’t thought much beyond the album at this point.  Maybe I’ll try and train tigers to eat okra while playing Mozart…

Pitom’s self-titled debut is available now on Tzadik Records.