Friday, August 4, 2017

Remembering "Fool's Gold"

In the mid 80's I moved to Ithaca, NY, home of Cornell University and Ithaca College.  I didn't move for school; I just thought Ithaca would be a cool place to live.  I played music, worked as a research assistant, put hours in at the Food Co-op, made friends, took walks in the rural surroundings, danced, ate vegetarian, and had lots of fun.

I was at a New England-style contradance when I saw Fool's Gold providing the music.  They were interleaving Klezmer with celtic fiddle tunes and other traditional repertoire, and the audience was going nuts!  I walked right up and asked if they needed a pianist.  One rehearsal, and I was in!

So we were:  Eric Pallant, clarinet; Paul Viscuso, accordion; Betsy Gamble and Willow Soltow Crane, fiddles; Ted Crane on percussion and calling; and me on piano.

A lot of the Klezmer energy came from Eric.  First, he knew the Klezmer tradition:  traditional songs by Sholom Secunda, The Barry Sisters, and energetic new instrumental tunes by Mike Bell.  Second, he could make his clarinet wail like a banshee and quack like a duck.

Paul had a knack for composing and finding soulful, beautiful tunes with multi-part melodies that made for some wonderful romantic waltzes.  He was also a titan of the keyboard accordion, and could make the dancers really move with his rhythm.  He was the band's leader, too, and he did it with just two words:  NEXT!! (for changing tunes) and OUT!! (for ending the dance set).

Betsy Gamble had incredible traditional fiddle chops, and Willow no slouch either, and together they worked out many double-fiddle arrangements that brought a lot grit to the songs with the rosin on their bows.

Ted called the dances, and added some rhythmic drive with his percussion.  He played the bones, and, to make our Contradance-Klezmer fusion all the more absurd, played the Irish Bodhrán.  

Fool's Gold had a great tonal palette.  Fiddle, clarinet, and accordion makes for a magical, sensual timbral quality when you play them on a melody, or in harmonies.

Something I love about Klezmer is that you almost can't exaggerate the craziness.  One thing I used to do on the piano is an upward glissando from the lowest bass notes right before nailing the root on the downbeat.  It makes a funny, growling, sweeping sound.  In a lot of music I'll save such an effect for one key moment, because a little bit can go a long way.  Not in Klezmer!  You can do it over and over, and the music just gets funner and funnier.

Once we played at the annual Ithaca Festival.  During one of our Klezmer numbers, the crowd spontaneously formed an Isreali-style circle dance.  I love New York.

Life in Ithaca NY doesn't stay still much, because many people are on the move.  People are in town for a few years for school, and then move on.  In 1987, some of us were moving on to teaching jobs, others moving away for grad school elsewhere.  So we gathered at Andy Ruina's house on Teeter Road and recorded using his wonderful baby grand piano with great growling bass notes.  We did it in a short time, with no overdubs, and very few takes.  If there was a blemish here or there, or one or two songs were maybe not quite ready for prime time, we laid them down anyway and put them out there.  It reflected the spontaneous nature of Ithaca, our youth, and the joy of living in the moment.

I have just put all the tracks of our cassette (and later CD) "Contras From the Old Country" up on YouTube.  The playlist of the full album is here.  Enjoy!

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