Ben Holmes talks about his solo pieces, his chamber approach to ensemble playing, and some of the louder things he does, too
Trumpeter Ben Holmes, in addition to the many things he does, plays a lot of Jewish music. Although some people find that confusing (people can be, maybe unintentionally, obnoxious). “My last name is Holmes,” he says. “And ever since I started playing klezmer music, I’ve always gotten this thing like, ‘How did you come to this music?’ As if it’s so weird that I should be playing it. I say, ‘I am Jewish. I grew up going to synagogue, and these sounds make sense to me.’”
Those sounds are a big part of Holmes’ creative output, too. He plays many traditional klezmer gigs and is a regular on the Hasidic wedding circuit, but even his more open-ended, improvisatory projects—like his trio, Naked Lore—owe something to his ear for Jewish music.
“I wanted to write some music that drew on the things that I’ve done with klezmer and Eastern European music, but gear them in way that there will be space for improvising, which is also a big part of what I enjoy in music,” he says. Naked Lore released its debut on Chant Records in April, 2020, at the height of the pandemic.
Holmes does non-improvisatory music, too. He is wrapping up a project of Freygish Etudes—“Freygish” is a Yiddishization of Phrygian, which is one of the primary klezmer modes, and is possibly derived from the Turkish makam system—which are a collection of pieces for solo trumpet. “It started as a real attempt to deal with my fear of solo playing,” he says.
Not that he has anything to be afraid of. Holmes is the consummate pro. He spoke with me from his home in Brooklyn, and we talked about how Jewish music kept him busy enough to quit his day job, the story behind the Freygish Etudes, working with pianist Peter Sokolow in the Tarras Band, his chamber approach to Naked Lore, and how Jewish music is his connection to his Jewish identity.
Are you excited to get back to playing in public?
My first gig back with my band, Naked Lore, since the start of the pandemic is at Barbès in Park Slope, Brooklyn on May 28. It’s limited to seating of 12 people per set, and that’s available as tables of two or four. We’re playing two sets, and yes, it’s great to finally get back to playing in front of an audience. I’m going to be in front of an audience!
What’s your background and when did you start playing trumpet?
I grew up in Ithaca, New York. When I was a kid I took piano lessons, which I am grateful for and wish I had taken more seriously at the time. I started playing trumpet in school bands. I was a shy kid so the chance to make a ton of noise was very exciting for me. I fell in love with the instrument immediately. I never did marching band—I managed to dodge that one—and in middle school did wind ensemble and jazz band. I did the same thing in high school. I was lucky to have fantastic primary music education. My family moved to Princeton, New Jersey when I was in high school. The band director was Dr. Anthony Biancosino, he was a truly fantastic band director who’s unfortunately passed away. I also had a great trumpet teacher, Bob Gravener. These were people who gave me a strong foundation, and put me on the path to being able to figure things out.
Were you playing big band charts in jazz band, and did you get a chance to improvise, too?
A little bit of both. I started jazz band at about sixth grade and got more into improvising in high school, when I started learning theory and how to play changes. In high school, I was playing in the trumpet section, but also playing solos with the band. I was also able to put together small groups with friends. I didn’t major in music in college, but I was lucky to have a great jazz ensemble experience. I went to Princeton University, and the founder and director of the jazz ensemble was Dr. Anthony Branker, who’s another tremendous music educator. I am very grateful for that because at the time, I hadn’t been studying music in any kind of serious way. But he was such a good band director that I think I wound up with a very solid foundation in section playing and how to exist in a band.
When did you start playing Jewish music and how did you get into it?
When I was at Princeton, a friend of mine, Alex Kontorovich, and I had been talking about starting a jazz combo. This was at the time that the Klezmatics were on David Letterman with Itzhak Perlman. We heard that, and there was another student at Princeton, Inna Barmash—who is a great singer, and she was doing Yiddish singing—and we wound up deciding to do klezmer music instead of jazz. That connected us to the KlezKamp world, where we met people like Pete Sokolow, Henry Sapoznik—he organized the festival—Sid Beckerman, and Frank London. That’s also where I know Mike Winograd. Pete Sokolow in particular has been a huge influence for all of us, and somebody I probably learned the most about that style of music from.
Did you start working, too?
That was the other exciting thing about it. We pretty quickly started doing gigs with the band. We were called the Klez Dispensers—every band needed a pun at that point—and we were lucky to be able to start doing gigs almost immediately. Both concerts, but there was also considerable interest in party music for bar mitzvahs, weddings, and things like that.
Was it good work? Were you able to quit your day job?
When we started, I was in college. It was extra money here and there. After I moved to New York—I was working in psychology as a research assistant—and that was the point that I started working more, and also with some other bands. I was dipping a toe into the New York freelance scene. At the time, I was playing more klezmer gigs, and that’s when it occurred to me that I could do that. That I could not have a day job and transition into playing more gigs. Although that kicked my butt to really study the trumpet a lot more.
I started playing with more people, and the level of musicianship is so high. I played some other related musics, too, not directly klezmer. I got involved with Slavic Soul Party. Playing with that band and hearing that group of musicians, they were so accomplished and I felt so green.
How similar is that music to klezmer?
There are a lot of similarities, especially with Gogol Bordello, Slavic Soul Party, and then also with Balkan music. There is so much that is similar, but some things are very different. Although it could be hard to articulate. A lot of it is stylistic things. The ornamentation from klezmer, ultimately, at least to me, sounds like it ties back to cantorial music or Yiddish melodies. There are a lot of things, like krekhts, and other ornaments like that that just don’t appear in Romany music or Serbian music.
Is that what makes it “Jewish?”
I think so, even more than the modes you use. Sometimes you’ll hear a song from Romania, and it’s being played by a Romany band, and yet it just sounds so Jewish. Even if they’re playing with a different style. There are also some of the structural elements that could mark it to me as sounding Jewish. I am not an ethnomusicologist, I just learn from doing, but the style and the ornamentation is what marks it for me.
Did you start playing the Hasidic wedding scene, too?
I started doing that later, and I’ve been doing that a lot for the last 12 years. That’s an interesting scene. We’ll do a little bit of klezmer sometimes, but the main thrust of that music is so different.
What’s the story behind your Freygish Etudes?
That came from a book, Jewish Music: Its Historical Development, by Abraham Idelsohn, which as an intense but interesting book. He talks a lot about the Freygish mode—what that is and where that came from—and that it came in fairly late. It is something that we immediately associate with Jewish music, even though it really became more identified with Jewish music in the 17th or 18th century. That irony just popped out to me, because my last name is Holmes, and ever since I’ve started playing klezmer music, I’ve always gotten this thing like, “How did you come to this music?” As if it’s so weird that I should be playing it. I say, “I am Jewish. I grew up going to synagogue, and these sounds make sense to me.” I just appreciated the irony of that [Editor: Holmes puts it like this on his website: “I loved the idea of being a guy who is often perceived as non-Jewish (but is!) exploring a sound that is often identified strongly as Jewish (but isn’t!)!”].
You don’t look as Freygish as the fifth mode of the harmonic minor scale, but as its own thing. Why is that?
I think it’s just the way it’s used. The fact that a lot of times there are these cadences that take you so outside the realm of it being the fifth mode of the harmonic minor scale. For instance, if you’re in D Freygish, there’ll be a lot of times where if a phrase is ascending you’ll have a B natural [as opposed to a B flat]. That seems to be a part of the sound and to me can’t be explained by being a mode of harmonic minor. It seems like it makes more sense to approach it for what it is, rather than try to transpose it.
Also the way that the modulations work. In a lot of klezmer tunes—and in a lot of cantorial music—the way you move around, to me, has its own identity that’s more interesting than just being this mode of this other thing.
Could it have a parallel with Arabic makams as well?
I don’t know enough about that to say. My understanding of the history of Freygish is that “Freygish” is the Yiddish version of “Phrygian,” and that comes from Phrygia which is part of [modern-day central] Turkey. My understanding of how that got around was that that sound got into Romania, Moldova, the Balkans, by way of the Ottoman Empire.
But it’s a sound with Eastern roots.
Absolutely, and I think that’s where the makams get interesting. In Turkish music, it is similar—although it is different because of the microtones and the usage—but it is very related to the makam called Hijaz. I am not an ethnomusicologist, so I can’t tell you the exact extent to which it differs, but I think it is basically the same collection of notes. In Turkey or Egypt or other places, the tuning would be different.
Have those microtones made their way into klezmer as well?
I don’t think in any structured way. It does certainly when you hear—especially clarinet players, when they are bending pitches more—I think it is referenced to and it makes sense, but if you look at the notation for Turkish music, there are quarter sharps and quarter flats, in klezmer, generally, things are not like that.
Is the Tarras Band like a Dave Tarras tribute band?
It started that way for sure, that was Mike Winograd’s idea. We wanted to do something with Pete Sokolow, and that was the genesis of that. Pete played with Dave Tarras for a long time. We did one record that was all Dave Tarras—not all his tunes—but music by Dave Tarras. For the second one, we also did some Naftule Brandwein tunes and a couple of originals. That was a fantastic experience to get to hang out with Pete.
Have you transcribed a lot of Dave Tarras and Naftule Brandwein songs?
Yeah, I have a big book of those.
How do those two artists differ?
Dave Tarras was such a virtuoso and there are some extremely technical pieces. Brandwein is a little more raw. He’s still an amazing player—not being an ethnomusicologist, these are broad categories—but the Brandwein tunes sound much more old world to me, and in fact, they probably are. You can find recorded versions of them from Europe as well. Tarras wrote a lot more and there is definitely more of an influence of American music, even if it is not immediately apparent. He’ll put in syncopations and things like that. A good example is a tune he recorded called, “Onga Americana,” which Pete said was originally a Romanian fiddle tune. There are these syncopations in it that sound like Tarras came to the U.S., heard more syncopated music—more ragtime jazz—and then put in these syncopated bars here and there.
I’ve been transcribing it for a long time for that reason. I thought the tunes were really interesting, and how Dave Tarras uses harmony—how me moves things around—and also it seemed like the best place to learn the appropriate articulation and ornamentation. There aren’t so many trumpet players from that era to check out. There were many who were great, but they didn’t produce a big body of recordings featuring the trumpet out front playing the melody that you can study in that way.
Is your group Naked Lore something completely different? It seems like it’s still rooted in this type of music.
Naked Lore started as an attempt to combine everything that I am interested in. The original inspiration for that came from a record of Rafael Méndez, with Laurindo Almeida—it’s been released under a few different names—called Trumpet & Spanish Guitar, or Duets. There is something about that sound of the trumpet and acoustic guitar that’s so cool. Then there was another recording I heard of trumpeter Mark Gould—he was with the Metropolitan Opera for a long time, and also did some jazz—that had some acoustic guitar and percussion. I took that sound, and I really liked that chamber approach to trumpet. I do a lot of very loud music—brass bands, weddings, and things that are loud—and after doing a lot of that, I decided that if I am going to do something of my own, I want it to be the opposite.
It’s sounds like you're taking more of a jazz approach as well. As opposed to through-composed compositions, it’s more like a head and then solos.
For sure. I’ve been trying to play with that. I started to use it as a form for wherever my head is at. I’ve also started trying to play some solo pieces with it, because that was something I was always scared to do. The name of the band is Naked Lore, and you can’t really feel more exposed than that. The band is guitarist Brad Shepik—I grew up listening to his records—and percussionist Shane Shanahan, who is such a beast. I want to give them plenty of space, too. It makes sense. Through checking out Balkan music and Turkish music, I find you can use some of those sounds and then have space for improvising. I play with that a little bit, and fit it in with how I approach klezmer, and how I like to improvise.
How has embracing Jewish music impacted your identity? Has it affected you culturally or religiously, or is it just another cool style of music to explore?
I am Jewish, but I am not religious, and I think my main connection to my Jewish identity is through music. I think that's why I found klezmer so interesting in the first place. Back in my late teenage years, I wasn’t active in the community at all, but hearing those sounds again had a pull of being a kid in synagogue, and hearing those same modes is a pretty powerful thing.
Is a community, too?
Yes, a lot of my best friends are musicians who work in this side of things. Mike Winograd is one of my closest friends. There is a tremendous community. I think it’s all over the place, and these festivals have gone on for years. It is international as well. But my connection is more to the folks in New York. A lot of my other close friends I know through Hasidic weddings and things like that. The people I sit next to night after night and really get to know.
Do you think that’s part of why the revival is still going strong? What's weird about klezmer is that people look at it as being Jewish folk music, but the Jewish community isn’t really connected to it anymore.
Although interestingly, there are some really fantastic Hasidic clarinet players playing klezmer now. A few in New York and several from Israel who I know about because they turn up on gigs every once in a while.
But why is it thriving? Who is the audience?
That depends. There are quite a few people like me who are culturally and ancestrally connected to Judaism, but are not observant ourselves. The music does have a pull there, and there are a lot of people like that. Although I don’t want to speak for anybody who isn't me. There are also a lot of people who like acoustic music—not that klezmer has to be acoustic by any means—but it’s like the things that are tied to that. There is a Balkan dance scene and an Irish music scene, whatever it is, there is this older style that still has an appeal.
Meaning that it’s not necessarily about Jewish identity. It could also just be that people are into the music.
I think there are a lot of people who are into it, or people who are looking for a different angle. A different part of the identity. I don’t know if I can articulate that entirely. It’s just a different thing. To have some of those sounds. But maybe the more modern thing, or the post-Carlebach thing, is not the connection, maybe it’s just this other type of cultural connection.
Is the Naked Lore album on Chant your most recent release?
That’s the most recent. I had the great timing to put it out in April of last year. That was interesting [laughs]. I was very happy with how that came out, and I am hoping to do some more with that band soon. I also want to finally finish the Freygish Etudes project. I was going into lockdown strong with that one, but like many people, lost momentum.
Are they all written?
They are all written. I have been doing rough recordings of them sitting down in front of a camera and recording until I have a good take. At some point, I would like to record them properly. I’ve written it all out, but I haven’t completely edited it to where I can easily hand it to other people. I’ve sent it around to people who are interested, but I would like to make a little book. It started as a real attempt to deal with my fear of solo playing. I want to finish that and have that be a body of work that is there.
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