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New Life for JAM Bands 

With the Paradox Trio and the Klezmatics, Matt Darriau keeps the Jewish Alternative Movement going strong.

The chemistry is right for the Paradox Trio (Matt Darriau, far left).
  • The chemistry is right for the Paradox Trio (Matt Darriau, far left).

Matt Darriau started out as a jazz musician, but his interest waned before he even graduated from music school. He had already been collecting world folk albums as if they were baseball cards, his mind on lilting clarinets rather than keening saxophones. His folk music fanaticism only grew, and after several years and a move to New York, Darriau now leads and plays in so many different and distinct folk bands that he could host a diversity-day celebration all by himself.

Darriau's Balkan folk art music band, the Paradox Trio, gets him a fair amount of attention. That and the fact that he has joined the Klezmatics, one of the higher profile klezmer bands in the States. Darriau is a forerunner and driving force behind the Jewish Alternative Movement -- a marketing term/cultural tag applied to the recent resurgence of traditional Jewish music that draws equally from Ornette Coleman, Frank Zappa, and other eclectic sources. But Darriau has little in the way of cultural pretense -- he isn't out to rediscover his roots, and he isn't even Jewish. He just has a passion for folk, which might explain why, in addition to the Balkan klezmer of Paradox Trio, he also fronts a Celtic folk band (Celtic Eclectic), a world dance band (Recycle Orchestra), and a group devoted to early Ellington transcription (Ballin' the Jack).

"There's such a huge body of recorded work," says Darriau. "Who needs to put out another CD of original music? How much plastic has been wasted on [mediocre] original music? There's so much amazing music out there, I think that it's valid to go back and reference it."

Unlike a jazz or classical musician who might check out and borrow from other music as a way to freshen up his or her own, Darriau inhabits his chosen musical idioms. His method is like that of a mad field recorder or musical archaeologist. He collects and studies what he calls "source music" -- music of a certain time and place -- that might still be performed as a tradition, but has long since outlasted its period as anything close to new music. He even comes at Ellington from the perspective of a folklorist.

"I started listening to this early Ellington as if it's source music," he says. "And it really was the source of a lot of jazz -- it was a new language at the time. And I got into dealing with that as if it was a folk music, which it kind of is. It's an organic thing that just happened, and it was powerful. I studied all that stuff in college, and I'm still into jazz, so it was a fun project to revisit that music."

But what makes Darriau's music an interesting listen, and what keeps him from getting too stuffy or going too Smithsonian, is what Darriau does once he branches into a musical tradition. Hardly a purist, Darriau doesn't generate aural museum dioramas for the stage. Instead, he reimagines what this folk might sound like, were it still living and developing. He reinvents Balkan folk and klezmer, thinking not as a preservationist, but rather an anachronist -- a folk musician who finds his musical contemporaries in new music, the downtown avant garde, and rock.

"I tried to pick up [Balkan folk] on my own -- cop a lesson here and there," says Darriau. "I've been shown some things by this guy and that guy. Meanwhile, I was concentrating on jazz in school. But then, pretty quickly, I was interested in bringing the jazz and compositional thing in with the Balkan/world music rhythms and modes. I wanted to do it relatively organically and have it just kind of happen as naturally as possible, and also I wanted to do it from a place of understanding. I wanted to get deep into it -- learn the traditions as much as I could."

Darriau's folk stays within the lines, but still weaves and bobs with contemporary trends in sound -- which is readily apparent just moments into the first tune on Paradox Trio's latest album, Source. Darriau's crying clarinet opens solo, but before long, Brad Shepik cuts in with the biting tone of his electric guitar. Cello solos, mild overblowing, subtle funk grooves, and other such nontraditional elements follow. But it's still organic and more than recognizably Eastern European.

"My training has been in jazz, so I feel like I have to have a certain amount of subtlety to my music -- I don't want to just put a swing beat or some clichéd jazz thing over the top with some Balkan flavor," Darriau explains. "I want to understand the structural components under the sound surface -- underneath the surface of the music -- and use those in guiding the composition. It might not necessarily sound like a Balkan tune, but it has Balkan influences in it, because I'm using some of the structure."

But as Darriau points out, years after he took the dive with Balkan folk and then followed up with all other kinds of folk music as a legitimate field of contemporary musical exploration, the scene has somewhat passed him by. Bulgarian choirs now sing for film soundtracks, and David Byrne and Peter Gabriel have been bringing world folk to the concertgoing, record-buying masses. If Darriau gets attention for his work, it's more often of the James P. Johnson variety -- he gets credit as an early influence rather than a purveyor. Nevertheless, Darriau has infiltrated more folk scenes than almost anyone and may just be moving into his prime as both a folk musician and bandleader.

"I was doing [Balkan folk] all through the '80s," says Darriau. "I moved to New York in the '90s, and it was only after I was dealing with this stuff for 12-15 years that I suddenly got the right group of musicians together -- when I formed Paradox Trio -- where I think that it works. And people responded to the chemistry of that group. After years of working with it, it finally came together."

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