WE'D BEEN STRUGGLING TO CAPTURE THE ENERGY of our live performances on disc ever since 1976, when Chris Strachwitz attempted to record The Klezmorim's early Freight & Salvage shows. It drove us crazy that our studio albums felt so tame, when night after night our concerts were bacchanalian orgies of improvisation and audience frenzy. Face it, we played best under combat conditions. We got off on the sheer animal vibe of a thousand sweaty bodies jammed into a room.
Since our stage shows resembled epic minidramas — augmenting the music with pantomime, dance, illusion, satire, parody, and demagoguery — it seemed fitting that our albums should be more than bags o' tunes. Easier said than done! Setting up studio-quality recording equipment at concert venues was prohibitively expensive for teensy noncommercial labels Arhoolie and Flying Fish. And ideally, you'd wanna record for two or three nights to generate multiple takes; not easy, given our touring schedule of incessant one-nighters.
We had a close call or two in 1983. We coulda — shoulda! — recorded our Carnegie Hall shows... but the whopping fee Carnegie Hall levied (in advance) for the use of its name on a record was too rich for our blood. Soon afterward, just before we were to record a live album at a Boston jazz club, Donald Thornton collapsed with mononucleosis and had to be air-freighted home to California. Unstoppable troupers, we rearranged all the tunes and played the gig righteously. But with a key member out of action, recording live was out of the question.
The following year, Notes from Underground producer Bernie Krause indulged our cheap thrills jones; the Betty Boop-and-Bluto sound effects on "Gangsters in Toyland," however, barely hinted at the cheerful anarchy of our full-out shtick. So in 1986, when we finally got the opportunity to record our Jazz-Babies of the Ukraine show live in Europe, we set out to make the album a surreal, hyperdimensional, Firesign Theatre soundscape.
We found Amsterdam's Odeon Theatre cold, cramped, and acoustically muzzy... the live sound recordist perpetually stoned... and quite a few of our tunes worn down to the rims by too many road trips. Somehow we got an album made, thanks to fix-it-in-the-mix magic by me, Kevin Linscott, and post-production engineer Don Vonk.
Despite less-than-optimal recording conditions, Jazz-Babies contains a gem or two. Kevin, Donald, and Chris Leaf reinterpret "Firen" beautifully as a brass trio... radical clarinetist Ben Goldberg brilliantly deconstructs the Naftuli Brandwine classic "Oy Tate"... and "Digga Digga Doo" is as hip as anything we ever recorded.
If the second half of Jazz-Babies comes off as a hodgepodge of musical fragments and shtick, all I can say is: You had to be there. musicHound WORLD attempts to describe the missing visuals: "Picture six dark-haired bearded men performing in fezzes, tossing rubber chickens into the crowd, leaping about like circus acrobats..."