»Music Preview: International couple blends New Orleans and old world«

By Manny Theiner, Pittsburgh Post Gazette
Thursday, August 21, 2008

Dietmar Liehr

The Ortner-Roberts Duo – husband and wife Tom Roberts and Susanne Ortner – will celebrate the release of the CD "A Trip to America" tonight at Moxie Dada.

There's something fishy about the grainy old photo on the first inside pages of the booklet that comes with the Ortner-Roberts Duo's new CD.

The right side of the picture shows several black musicians in what appears to be an early jazz group. But the left displays a lineup of bearded European fiddlers. So when, one might ask, did this cross-cultural melange exist?

It's an illusion, explains the duo's pianist, Tom Roberts -- a visual concept created by graphic designer Dale McNutt of Soho Invention. "We met Dale when we played at James Simon's Gist Street loft in Uptown. We went through hundreds of photographs and found the ones that Dale thought were the most profound. It's a Polish band called Spielman Kapelye, and Buddy Bolton's band from New Orleans, and both are pictures from 1905."

On the front cover of the duo's CD, "A Trip to America: A Yiddish/Creole Fusion," the motif is repeated, this time with a third image of Roberts and his clarinetist wife Susanne Ortner-Roberts in the middle, placing them neatly in the historical context.

Which is exactly where the performing couple wants to be. Their mission has been to combine Susanne's knowledge of Jewish music (she originally came over from Germany with her European klezmer band, Sing Your Soul, and found a welcome niche in Pittsburgh's Jewish community) with Tom's experience in early jazz.

"Harmonically, the material shares a lot of common ground," Roberts says.

The results of the duo's hybridization are astounding. On the leadoff track "Cotton Club Sher," they take a minor-key Duke Ellington piece that has a "distinctive cantorial feel" and blend it seamlessly into a Russian dance recorded by I.J Hochman's Jewish Orchestra in 1922.

Then on pieces such as "Wild Cat Blues" and "Terkisher," they intertwine the stories of seminal figures in American music, especially iconic klezmer clarinetist Naftule Brandwein and New Orleans clarinet/sax legend Sidney Bechet. Both were early superstars in their respective fields, Ortner-Roberts explains -- and were "larger-than-life characters with wild backgrounds," adds Roberts.

"Bechet was arrested and expelled from most of the major countries of Europe, [while] Brandwein was known to drive around the mountains in the Catskills playing his clarinet drunk out of his mind," Roberts said. "There's a story about him in an Uncle Sam costume made of red, white and blue lights, where he was sweating so badly he nearly electrocuted himself."

Ortner-Roberts isn't Jewish herself -- she's a native of Augsburg, Germany, who became deeply interested in klezmer and was initially invited to the United States by the University of Pittsburgh. As fate would have it, local guitarist Henry Shapiro became a "shadchan" -- matchmaker -- when he hired both Tom and Susanne to play at a bar mitzvah. "After the second bar mitzvah, Tom and I got together to work on some music, and then the romantic thing happened, too," she says.

The fruits of their yearlong collaboration are revealed in the music and extensive, historically accurate liner notes on "A Trip to America," which was self-released on their own Wild About Harry label (named after the little West Highland Terrier who guards their North Side home).

Ortner-Roberts' background in klezmer combines with Roberts' vast experience in early jazz -- his resume includes playing in the French Quarter and Carnegie Hall, working with Wynton Marsalis, The Nighthawks and Leon Redbone, and soundtracking for the films "The Aviator" and "DeLovely" -- and his expertise in the stride piano technique which made Jelly Roll Morton famous.

One of Morton's key rhythms, called the "Spanish Tinge," is a tango-like groove found throughout the music of the period, Roberts says. "You can find it in calypso music [a realm they explore in 'Venezuela' by Jewish-Creole composer Lionel Belasco, often referred to as the 'Scott Joplin of calypso.' On the first part of each measure, there's a hesitancy, a limping. That rhythm exists in the habanera and throughout the whole Caribbean culture, also in New Orleans music, and Greek and Turkish music."

That very search for unifying themes drives the pair in their musical pursuits. "It's about looking around you -- what is part of my culture, but what can we learn from others," Ortner-Roberts says. "In African-American music, you mostly hear rap and hip-hop, but there are many other things.

"We just want to remind people of the beauty of that, and we picked these styles because we felt some sort of closeness to them," she says. "I don't like the idea of a compartmentalized society, where certain things have to be the exclusive property of certain ethnic groups.

"That's the complete antithesis of Martin Luther King," adds Roberts, who selected the Langston Hughes poem, "America," (which appropriately begins "Little dark baby, little jew baby, little outcast, America is seeking the stars") to grace the CD booklet cover. "People are being driven apart from one another, but we use our music to say that there is a greater whole of humanity, common thread between all these groups of people, and the music can help show this oneness," he says.

"We're not black, and we're not Jewish, but there's no reason why you have to be either of those things to play this music, or even to appreciate it on a deep level."

Manny Theiner is a freelance writer.

First published on August 21, 2008 at 12:00 am