There’s nothing to get a band going like a great name. So how did the members of local klezmer quintet Ezekiel’s Wheels come up with theirs? “I kind of cheated,” says violinist Jonathan Cannon, on a conference call with clarinetist Nat Seelen and bassist Kirsten Lamb. “We were just about ready to start playing gigs, but we didn’t have a name yet. David [Symons, accordion] liked gloomy, dark-sounding names. Nat liked chipper, parade-style names. I was into the idea of mystical Jewish tradition. But I happened to be the one with the long list of klezmer contacts. And after several seemingly endless debates about what a good name would be, I just sent out an e-mail to all those contacts announcing a new band called Ezekiel’s Wheels, and it stuck. I liked the image, which I had learned about in Sunday School, Ezekiel’s vision of the chariot of God, and wheels within wheels. I tried to draw a picture of it once.”
Ezekiel’s Wheels is, in fact, on a roll. The band was named best klezmer band and won the Audience Prize at the International Jewish Music Festival in Amsterdam last October. Monday at
7 p.m. they’ll play at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline, and in late summer or early fall, their first CD, “Transported,” is due out.
But it took a while — for all the right players and instruments to fall into place.
It started, Seelen recalls, at Brown University, where he and Cannon played in a klezmer band. After graduating, they both wound up in Boston. “And we decided we wanted to have a good band after college, too,” he said. “So we set about finding people to play with.”
A combination of sources brought them trombone player Pete Fanelli. Then they hooked up with Symons; he had to leave not long after, but he put them in touch with Lamb. “At that point,” says Seelen, “we were a quartet: clarinet and violin, bass and trombone. Then I left to spend a year in Washington, D.C.” By the time he came back, in 2011, Cannon had found a second violin player, Abigale
Reisman , who had just graduated from Manhattan School of Music and was about to move to Boston to pursue a graduate program at New England Conservatory.
Cannon and Seelen stress that there’s no set lineup for a klezmer band. “Originally the violin was probably the chief klezmer instrument,” says Cannon, “but as Jews got drafted into the army, the tsar’s army, they would come back with military instruments, like drums and trumpets and clarinets.” Seelen points out that the first recorded klezmer music, in early-20th-century America, “featured clarinet and trumpet playing the melodies, because they were easier to record than the violin.”
And though Cannon says the clarinet is now the most recognizable klezmer instrument, he adds that it’s not essential for a klezmer band. “If Abigale were on the line, she would tell you that a fiddle trio she played with in New York was drawing on the klezmer violin tradition.”
According to Seelen, it’s about the individuals, not the instruments. “When we started off,” he says, “we were looking for a tuba player and thinking about getting a drummer, and we already mentioned having an accordion player at the beginning. We came up with this instrumentation because these were the best people we could find.”
The audience award at the International Jewish Music Festival was, of course, a big boost for the young band.
“They were a very professional ensemble, and they radiate a very positive atmosphere. They make you happy to watch them,” said Ken Gould, the festival’s director in 2012.
Just getting to Amsterdam for the festival was an adventure in itself. As Lamb recalls, “We were selected to play in the festival, and since they weren’t able to provide any funding for transportation, we put together a Kickstarter campaign.”
He said they made a video explaining who the band was and what they needed the money for — plane tickets, accommodations, and renting a bass.
“We were shocked to find out there were so many people who were so generous and supportive,” he said. “Within about a week, we had most of the funding that we had requested. And we raised over $5,000."
Cannon says, “When people ask me what the trick is to successful fund-raising, I say, ‘Only do it once.’ A lot of people were very excited to help us out because they hadn’t helped us do anything before. But I think if we did it again, it might take a little longer.”
Seelen says the band was helped by being the only American group in an international competition. “So we were representing the United States, and Boston in particular.”
The contacts they made in Amsterdam have been valuable. “In April,” says Lamb, “we went on tour to the Southeast. The award we won really helped in advertising that we were coming to play in various cities, helped us get better-paid gigs, helped us get people excited to come out and see us.”
And the connections they made are not just in the United States.
“Right now,” says Seelen, “we don't have any international gigs scheduled for this year. But as we’re looking toward next season, we have people we could play with in France, in Spain, in Holland, all these cool places that before we just wouldn’t have been able to [go]. So that’s the really exciting part.”
As Cannon said, the music can speak for itself. “But it helps to get people listening first.”