4th Ward Afro-Klezmer Orchestra
9 p.m. Oct. 3, Eyedrum Art and Music Gallery, $10, 290 Martin Luther King Jr. Drive S.E., Atlanta, 404-522-0655, www.eyedrum.org.
Also 9 p.m. Oct. 17, Highland Inn Ballroom Lounge, $7, 644 N. Highland Ave N.E., Atlanta, 404-874-5756, www.thehighlandinn.com.
By Bob Townsend
The high concept behind Atlanta’s 4th Ward Afro-Klezmer Orchestra is a mix of West African-influenced rhythms and Eastern European klezmer melodies. On paper, it seems like a pretty unlikely musical mash-up.
But to hear this jazz orchestra — wailing away on tunes such as “Greater Lagos Wednesday Night Talmud Meeting” — is to experience a soulful, swinging sonancy that freely shifts from funky grooves to joyful schmaltz.
The 4WAKO, as it has come to be called, was founded by leader and trumpet player Roger Ruzow — a veteran of the avant-garde, free jazz ensemble Gold Sparkle Band and a Clayton County public school music teacher. To put over his original compositions and arrangements, Ruzow recruited a who’s who of Atlanta jazz players, including Colin Bragg (guitar), Chris Case (keyboard), Ben Davis (tenor sax), Jeff Crompton (alto sax/clarinet), Ben Gettys (bass), Bill Nittler (baritone sax/clarinet), Keith Leslie (drums) and Blake Williams (trombone).
Look for 4WAKO gigs this month at Eyedrum Art and Music Gallery and the Highland Inn Ballroom Lounge, as well as the release of its debut CD, “East Atlanta Passover Stomp.”
Recently, Ruzow talked about what he’s been up to with the orchestra.
Q: Could you talk a bit about how your musical background led to your wanting to convene a jazz orchestra that plays West African rhythms and Eastern European klezmer melodies?
If you’re talking about Gold Sparkle, from my standpoint it’s logical. What we were doing was developing new ways to approach jazz. We’re still developing new ways to approach the elements of melody, harmony and rhythm. What it comes down to is taking the styles and making them ours, putting our own twist on them.
Q: Was it difficult to find musicians who could play and wanted to play this kind of music?
To be honest, no. This ensemble is people I’ve been playing with for three to nine years. Everybody was playing a lot of free and improvisational music. They all knew the music that I’d written, and they all thought it sounded like a crazy, cool idea.
Q: You cite jazz great Charles Mingus and Afro-pop legend Fela Kutias as influences, but what about other sources, such as John Zorn and Masada or some of the Gypsy jazz ensembles?
Zorn is pulling from many of the famous and virtuosic klezmer musicians from the 1920s and ’30s. Ziggy Elman, who was a trumpet player with Benny Goodman and also led his own orchestra, that’s where I’m getting some of these things from. He was a composer and arranger, and he would take klezmer tunes and work them into more popular styles. The Gypsy music and the klezmer music is an amalgamation of all these different folk styles and forms.
Q: The 4WAKO tunes are composed and you read from charts, but you all come from an improvisational background, how does that work?
Sun Ra is a big influence. And sometimes [we] will break into a Sun Ra sort of breakdown where we’re just going free. But we know where to go to.
Q: Your day job is teaching music in the public schools. How does that fit with what you’re doing with the orchestra?
It’s all music. Today, I was playing some of the pre-K kids some of Paco Peña’s flamenco guitar music and seeing if they could clap a beat to it. And right now, I have the only elementary wind ensemble in Clayton County.
Q: On paper, Afro-Klezmer sounds pretty conceptual, but you have a lot fun at your gigs, don’t you?
That’s the whole point. That’s what I tell everybody. This should be really fun.