European klezmer stars ready for Bay Area premiere

Kol Simcha means "voice of joy" and the musical ensemble of that name has been bringing joy to audiences across the globe for the past 13 years.

Billed as the premier klezmer band in Europe and lauded by such luminaries as the late Sir Yehudi Menuhin, the five-man group has performed its unique fusion of klezmer and jazz at Carnegie Hall, at jazz festivals, and in college auditoriums and various venues as far away as Turkey and as near as Pasadena.

Kol Simcha will make its first-ever Bay Area appearance on Saturday, April 24 at Stanford Memorial Auditorium as part of the Stanford Lively Arts Series.

The five musicians, four of them Swiss-born and one a German, have six CDs to their record. As individuals, they have performed with other groups as diverse as Big Bands, symphony orchestras, Lionel Hampton and the Klezmatics.

Flutist-composer Niki Reiser is also a film composer, and his soundtrack for "Beyond the Silence" won both the 1997 Federal Film Prize (Germany's Oscar) and the Bavarian Film Prize.

What distinguishes Kol Simcha from other klezmer ensembles, however, is not its credits but its sound.

While the clarinet and violin front most klezmer groups, Kol Simcha uses a clarinet and a flute. The group boasts a modern-jazz rhythm section and a piano — a most unwieldy instrument for groups emulating the Eastern European street-musician sound.

"It's just that traditional sound that we want to avoid," said pianist-composer Oliver Truan by phone from Madison, Wis., where the group was performing last week.

"We like the sound of the violin, but we don't want the sound in this group. We're trying to get our own sounds," he added.

"Klezmer has always been a music that is evolving, so I think we're still in that tradition," chimed in drummer David Klein, who cut his musical eyeteeth at the age of 16 in his mother's jazz quintet .

"The music is very virtuosic," he continued, "which also is different from your usual klezmer band…Our music is very, very technically advanced." Sometimes, he added, the symphony musicians "have a rather hard time playing our music."

Most of the members of the group have been classically trained. Pianist Truan is a magna cum laude graduate of the Berklee College of Music in Boston, which is Reiser's alma mater as well.

Clarinetist-saxophonist Michael Heitzler studied at the Music Academy in Freiburg, Germany. Acoustic bassist Daniel Fricker studied at the Conservatory of Music in Basel, Switzerland, as well as the Swiss Jazz School in Bern. Klein also attended Berklee.

The musicians range in age from 30 to 40. All but Heitzler live in Switzerland.

Heitzler lives in Brooklyn with his wife and four children. The German-born musician is an observant convert to Judaism and, when the band has a Friday night gig, someone else sits in for him.

With the rising popularity of world music, klezmer, which began in the shtetls as wedding music and took on a jazzier note in the streets of New York, is enjoying a resurgence.

Kol Simcha is riding the crest of that wave and according to Truan, may have helped it swell.

"I think people are always looking for new things to discover," he said. "I'm sure we did our part but we are just one of the voices.

"At the moment," he continued, "there is more interest in Europe — Germany is crazy about it — but now it really spreads to the U.S., especially New York.

Young people, people from different social backgrounds, old people, all seem to enjoy our music. Sometimes the older people come up and say that it really reminds them of the origins of this music."

Klein recalled an experience he had while playing at the Kansas City Jazz Festival a year ago.

"I was looking into the audience," he said, "and I saw Chinese people, black people, all kinds of people and they were all loving it. And I think that is because of the jazz influence. It makes them relate to what we're playing. If it was straight klezmer, I don't know if they'd get it so much."