Hannah Gelman and Jonah Massey
October 6, 2022
The Winding Road of Ezekiel’s Wheels: An Interview with Abigale Reisman
As the internationally-acclaimed klezmer band gears up for another busy year, the violinist reflects on the nature of her group’s music, growth, and the path ahead.
“Expect the same flavors, tastes, and spices but a different meal,” pledges Abigale Reisman. Even though Ezekiel’s Wheels has undergone a period of significant change, Reisman is certain that the band will continue to deliver klezmer music with their signature adrenaline and vigor. Talking online with the violinist on a Monday morning, I learned that Jonathan Cannon, the other violinist in the group, recently withdrew from Ezekiel’s Wheels to move to Canada (for a job as an assistant professor of neuroscience at McMaster University). Despite this loss, the klezmer band is showing no signs of slowing down— Reisman tells me that Ezekiel’s Wheels had “just played a wedding yesterday.” In the confusing aftermath of one less member and a year packed with performances ahead, Reisman contextualized the band’s current situation by taking me through its history, from its formation to today’s challenges.
Ezekiel’s Wheels Klezmer Band is a Boston-based ensemble whose interpretations and original tunes have marked them as heralds of klezmer’s horizons. The band now numbers Abigale Reisman (violin and backing vocals), Kirsten Lamb (double bass and lead vocals), Nat Seelen (clarinet), and Pete Fanelli (trombone). Lacking a chordal instrument (e.g., an accordion or piano), Ezekiel’s Wheels is unique in its instrumentation as a klezmer band, lending a distinct sound to their music. Their brand of klezmer is also inevitably influenced by the variety of musical backgrounds their members bring to the table.
“Klezmer music itself is a fusion music, with Romanian, Greek, and Turkish influences, to name a few” explains Reisman. “There was a phase where Jon, Kirsten, and I had a Romanian music band. That influence definitely came through, but we’ve backed off a little bit as we've gotten older. I come from a classical background while Jon and Kirsten come from a folk background, and classical, and jazz; Kirsten might be the most eclectic of all of us. Pete comes from jazz, too, and Nat is pretty eclectic himself — classical, jazz, and a ton of other styles. He's a voracious, voracious musician. People describe us as having a chamber style. So there is that classical element present. I tend to be more experimental [in the group]. I've pushed us a little in that direction, making sure that we’re not afraid to go into atonal territories. All of our influences come out, but at the same time, I don't think we set out to change that much about klezmer, just to put our own twist on it.”
It’s evident that Ezekiel’s Wheels keeps close to the historical settings of klezmer music. Performing at traditional Jewish events is a core component of both the band’s style and schedule. “For pretty much all of my time with Ezekiel’s Wheels, we’ve been playing at Jewish events like weddings and Bar/Bat Mitzvahs,” recalls Reisman. “I am quite grateful for the experience to play music in a very functional setting — especially for dance. It's hard for me to separate the two. I don't know what it would be like if I were playing in a klezmer band and not also playing for these events! It has definitely taught us the importance of having a medley of tunes that either keep the energy up or change the energy a little bit to get the dancers to continue dancing. I think that it all influenced the way that we create music in the band. Playing for dancing is probably the most influential and important thing that has shaped us as a band in our energetic style of playing.”
The development of this honed band began long ago. “We've been together over 10 years,” she says. “That has just lent itself to different periods in the band, just developing, growing together, and experimenting within the music.” It has also lent itself to numerous inside jokes among its members. When asked about how the group met, Reisman relates, “We went to Atlanta, Georgia, twice on tour, because that's where I'm from. And that's also where a lot of my family lives. My grandma was so interested in knowing this question [of how we met]. She even asks us a couple of times because she keeps forgetting. She goes, “how’d y'all get together?” At this last part, Reisman launched into a southern accent, emulating her grandmother. “And then we'll say now in our concerts, ‘I'm sure you guys all want to know, how’d y'all get together?’”
The story of Ezekiel’s Wheels starts with the Internet and a shared city in the Northeast. Nat and Jon, who were friends from Brown University’s klezmer band, posted a Craigslist ad after both moving to Boston. Pete, who had recently graduated from the Eastman School of Music in jazz and had previous experience playing klezmer saw that post and leaped at the opportunity. “At this point, everybody's in their early 20s, just experimenting and trying things,” Reisman remembers.
After an accordionist had joined and left the band (“this is the lore of the band for me; I wasn't there”) Kirsten joined Ezekiel’s Wheels in her move to Boston after graduating from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. Then, Reisman herself got introduced to the growing band. “I met Jon in 2010 while we were jamming together, playing next to each other. When we stopped playing, we started talking and he found out that I was moving to Boston to go to the New England Conservatory. He soon emailed the rest of the band and was like, ‘I want to bring this violinist into the band.’ I finally joined Ezekiel’s Wheels in 2011, pretty much right when I moved to Boston.”
Reisman recognizes that the group’s ultimate cohesion as a group came from a competition on the world stage. “I think that the big growth moment for us as a group was when we went to the International Jewish Music Festival in Amsterdam. Nat applied for us and we created a Kickstarter. We were able to garner support to go over there, flying five people [to Amsterdam] and competing. It was there that we started to fully understand the value of creating a varied and exciting concert, whereas before, it was perhaps more all over the place. Which is great in its own way, too. We were just exploring before that. I think after competing, we became more intentional about the kind of pieces that we were putting out and grew musically. We really started to know who we were, as a band. It wasn't a group of people playing klezmer tunes anymore, it was turning more into what we've come into now.”
Ezekiel’s Wheels has a deliberate yet flexible approach to its creative process. Specifically, Reisman describes their composition routine as “democratic.” “Anybody could bring something in and be like, ‘I like this tune,’” Reisman says. “Then we spend one to three rehearsals working on it, but it depends on the tune. If the idea is to have it be more simple, and just improvise on what's happening, well then that's pretty easy. We can just string a couple of tunes together. Maybe I would have written something or Kirsten has a song that she wants to sing, and we can just embed each other’s parts into a song. That’s a very common thing that we'll do.” But other times, composing can be more difficult for the band. “We have some arrangements that can be up to 13 minutes long— those are quite complex, and take a lot of arranging.” Reisman then speaks from her point of view. “I love composing and arranging music because you get to be the creator of this world where there are no real rules— or if there are rules, you've created the rules, you understand the rules, and you either want to break them or you don't. It can be a tough process as well when you're in a band of five people because everybody has different tastes and styles. Sometimes, it can even be tense. But everybody in our band is super respectful and polite. Nobody is a pushover, which I really appreciate. For example, if somebody has a strong idea, they’ll just say it. ‘Nope, this just isn't working for me.’ But something that I've been doing the past couple of years is just practicing saying ‘yes’ instead of saying ‘no’ right away. Overall, I would say composing and arranging is definitely a difficult process, but it can be simple too. I’ve got a great group of people to do it with me, and we've gotten better at it over the years.”
Eventually, like everyone else, Ezekiel’s Wheels had to adapt to a daunting obstacle — the COVID-19 pandemic. But in an unlikely turn of events, the change experienced was “incredible” for the band. “[It was] largely because of Nat,” reveals Reisman. “He just has such good ideas around things like this. I feel like it was quite quick that we pivoted to making videos, having online concerts, and simply being creative in that way. I felt very fulfilled with what we decided to do. We even arranged a piece completely online.”
“We also had several online concerts where we were able to bring in other elements into it, like a dance leader who was leading from her home. We got very creative with it. But I will say that it was very hard in the beginning because of how much energy you get from your audience. Suddenly, when there's no visible audience there, even though you have a number that says 100 viewers or whatever, it still feels very strange. It’s as if you have a phantom limb while you're playing.” She laughs. “Not that I know what a phantom limb feels like, but it's what I think it would be. It's a very weird, weird feeling.”
“We even did outdoor gigs during the pandemic that were extremely socially distanced, before the vaccinations. But it's definitely trickier now, and less straightforward. We're just hoping for the best and trying to be positive, planning things in advance for January and February, hoping that we'll be able to perform.”
Aside from international competition and the pandemic, Reisman shared some other significant moments that the band has experienced. “Our tour to the South was really great for us. We went all the way down to Atlanta, and we also played at the Kennedy Center in D.C. That was a big moment, seeing that we can really have a successful tour.” She moved on to discuss the band’s discography. “I think that our latest album The Thread was very memorable in that it marks when we finally decided to bring singing into the group. That was a huge change for us because for the longest time, for whatever reason, there was this unspoken rule that there would be no singing. But then we were like wait, we have Kirsten Lamb, who has the most gorgeous voice, and she can also sing [on top of playing bass]. We finally embraced that, and so our latest album is our first time jumping into Yiddish song.” In addition to singing being included on The Thread, Reisman made sure to note the experience of having Michael Winograd, an acclaimed klezmer clarinetist, as their producer. “Since I started listening to klezmer I was listening to his albums,” nostalgizes Reisman. “It was amazing to have him as a producer. That was definitely a big moment.”
Among these significant moments for Ezekiel’s Wheels also lies violinist Jonathan Cannon’s aforementioned departure from the group. “We're still trying to adjust to that this fall,” says Reisman. Moving forward, it only seems natural that we can “expect the unexpected” from the everchanging band. “We're just figuring out the next steps,” she adds. “We definitely want to do a couple of small tours with some universities. We have that in the works, just workshops and other events where we continue to perform. An album sounds great down the line, as well. I think we're overdue for it! We have a lot of new repertoires that needs to get recorded. I've written a lot of tunes recently and I know Nat has written his share of tunes recently, too. Kirsten is working on new vocals. There’s a lot of new stuff to be expected.”
“The biggest difference is that we're not going to have Jon. We're very excited to start having artistic rehearsals again, taking an intentional look at what we're trying to create— and how we can do it as a quartet. It's definitely a period of change for us, for sure,” opines Reisman. But Ezekiel’s Wheels isn’t going anywhere. If anything, it’s clear listening to this violinist that the band is more focused on the future than ever before.
See Abigale Reisman and Ezekiel's Wheels Klezmer Band at the Boston Festival of New Jewish Music on June 21, 2023: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/ezekiels-wheels-klezmer-band-at-the-bfnjm-tickets-431253058507?aff=blog.