When you think of the music of Fiddler on the Roof, there are probably some standard sounds that come to mind.
For starters, you probably think of a fiddle or some kind of string instrument. Or perhaps something a bit more klezmer infused. Or maybe you only hear Tevye’s dulcet tones.
But what you probably do not think of when it comes to Fiddler is jazz music.
Fortunately for lovers of show tunes and jazz alike, Mark Kramer and Eddie Gomez did.
In 2002, Philadelphia-born and -raised jazz pianist and composer Kramer teamed up with Gomez, a Grammy award-winning bassist, to record Jazz Fiddler on the Roof, selections of which they will perform at the Barnes Foundation on Dec. 2 as part of the museum’s First Friday.
Recording a jazz treatment of a Broadway musical is nothing new to Kramer, 71 (“going on 30,” he laughed), who had spent years living a sort of double life working in pharmacology and as a professor while also pursuing music.
In addition to Fiddler on the Roof, he has also given jazz treatment to songs from Rent, Les Miserables, Evita and — though not a musical — even Harry Potter.
In other words, “things you would never think to do in jazz,” he said.
The idea for Fiddler came about after he first started working with Gomez in the ’80s.
After he became a full-time musician in 2001, Kramer began touring with Gomez and recording as a trio with different musicians. Kramer had also been performing on the “outside,” he said, playing at weddings and Bar Mitzvahs.
“One thing we did was play selections from Fiddler on the Roof and it struck me how beautiful they were and how it could be transformed into jazz selections,” he recalled.
He presented the idea to Gomez who was immediately on board. They recorded jazz renditions of standout songs from the show such as “Tradition,” “Sunrise, Sunset,” “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” and “If I Were a Rich Man.”
“The show personally meant a lot to me,” said Kramer, who didn’t grow up overly religious but had his Bar Mitzvah and began going to synagogue after he walked by his neighborhood shul as a child and was entranced by the cantor singing. “I didn’t know at the time, but Eddie had background through his marriages in Judaism and also related to the show greatly.”
At the time, Kramer was a recording artist for Telarc International Corp., an independent music label, which Kramer said teamed its jazz musicians with classical musicians, such as Itzhak Perlman.
So the next step, naturally, would have been to be teamed with a violinist to play the parts of the titular fiddler.
However, Gomez had another idea.
“Eddie said, ‘I could be the fiddler,’ and he could play the parts that would be played by the violinist,” Kramer said, “and I thought about that because he’s one of the few bassists in the world that could make the bass sound like a violin.”
They recorded the music in 2002 and presented it to a few record companies to little success. However, after being released on Twinz Records and later re-released in 2004, Kramer still marvels at its success. They still get orders for the music, he said.
“Its traction has been surprising because I thought it would just be an interesting thing to bring out the beauty of the music of the show,” Kramer said.
There was one fan of the music in particular whose praise meant a lot to Kramer: none other than the composer of Fiddler, Jerry Bock.
Kramer still has a letter from Bock in which the writer said it was the “best jazz treatment” he’d ever heard, that “it was far more than a treatment it was a transformation” and it gave him “unmediated joy.”
Bock had even invited Kramer and Gomez as his guest to a performance of the Broadway revival of Fiddler a few years ago, and they maintained a friendship until Bock died in 2010.
For Kramer, the music of Fiddler continues to stand out to him.
“For me personally, I related to the melodies,” he said. “I looked at the words and saw the music and the words went together so great. The sheer joy of something like ‘Tradition,’ the celebration of Jewish life and something like ‘To Life,’ this was also something that could be brought out in jazz.”
He enjoys being able to play it for an audience as well, and seeing them make the connection to the songs, even if they are being presented and played in a way they might not be used to.
“It’s an introduction to jazz to people who might not ordinarily understand jazz,” he said. “At the Barnes, people will hear our trio play both Fiddler and also jazz in the same vein … It’s almost like an initiation ceremony for the listener. They go on a trip with us.”
For Kramer, who started out by playing violin as young as 5 and receiving mentorship from musicians in the Philadelphia Orchestra, the performance is a way to satisfy jazz enthusiasts as well as the newly initiated.
“We’ll play selections of other memorable tunes from other things we’ve done, so that satisfies the jazz people who will come out as well as others,” he said, noting he and Gomez have recorded about eight other albums together.
In the future, Kramer hopes to continue recording and experimenting with jazz music and creating a wide appeal for others — and maybe even record another treatment of a musical.
“I love to experiment,” he said, “so I would do things for experimentation. South Pacific is one that would be incredible. If I thought that Hamilton was worthwhile doing it, I would do it.”
But for now, he’s still enjoying the success of Fiddler and the wide appeal the story and the music — jazz and traditional — offer.
“It’s universal, that’s the one thing,” he said. “It presents Jewish culture in a way that’s universal so everyone can relate to it.
“That’s what I hope people will experience again at the Barnes.”
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