How often do two musicians meet at a bar mitzvah, then wind up falling in love and getting married? Just such a whirlwind romance happened to German clarinetist Suzanne Ortner, who was in the U.S. for an eight-month stint in 2006 when she encountered Pittsburgh pianist Tom Roberts.
"We both love old recordings from the teens, '20s and '30s," Suzanne says. "Tom has a huge collection of old klezmer 78s. We're interested in learning the traditional material and making something new out of it."
In February 2007, Suzanne brought her German klezmer quartet, Sing Your Soul, to Pittsburgh for some concerts. But more crucial was her work with Holocaust survivor Fritz Oppenheimer, a program for area schools in which Oppenheimer spoke about his experiences while she provided music. Meanwhile, Suzanne built contacts within the Jewish community, playing at synagogues and commemorations of Kristallnacht, as well as performing for local Holocaust survivors.
Tom and Suzanne's first concert together was at the 3rd Street Gallery in Carnegie; they began to fall for each other, but Suzanne had to return to Germany. Tom came to Europe and toured with her while he was there with the Dixieland Jazz Band. They got engaged in Germany during Tom's third visit, at which point Suzanne entered the U.S., invited by Pitt's Jewish Studies program. "I moved into Tom's house on the North Side with the 78 collection," she says. "He has a Victrola, too, and a dog."
Tom Roberts has become famed as one of the finest experts on stride piano, a virtuosic style where the left hand does the job of a rhythm section and the right reproduces the rest of the orchestra. And his story is amazing in itself.
A Taylor Allderdice High School grad from Swisshelm Park, Tom attended Duquesne University for trumpet. While still in college, he got a call from Leon Redbone to play on The Tonight Show; after living in New Orleans for five years and recording for Fantasy Records, Roberts ended up in New York City in 2001. Between playing Lincoln Center with Wynton Marsalis and gigging with Vince Giordano's band The Nighthawks, he was in the right place when Martin Scorsese called on Giordano to do the soundtrack for his soon-to-be blockbuster film, The Aviator.
"We were working on stuff for Rufus Wainwright," Tom recalls. "We put together that scene where Leonardo [DiCaprio] walks into the Coconut Grove to borrow cameras from Louie Mayer, and Rufus was singing 'Stairway to Paradise.' Scorsese liked what we did, and there wound up being a whole summer of sessions. Any time you hear a piano in the movie, that's me."
Tom and Suzanne are particularly inspired by the cross-fertilization between jazz and klezmer musicians in the early part of the 20th century, meticulously studying note-for-note transcriptions of material, in the same way someone would focus on Bach or Mozart.
"In the beginning of the recording industry, these musicians were all aware of one another," Tom says. "When the Dixieland Jazz Band did their first records, one of their biggest hits was 'Lena from Palestina,' which is pretty much a klezmer tune. And the klezmer musicians were excited by jazz and ragtime -- they'd play a tune called 'Jakie Jazz 'Em Up' [Jake being a typical Americanized Jewish name] or the 'Yiddish Charleston.'"
In the research process, the two have come across neglected musical connections, such as composer Lionel Belasco (featured in the Ghost World soundtrack) who was both a Creole and a Sephardic Jew. The most obvious link to stride piano they found was the story of black Jew Willie "The Lion" Smith, who influenced the careers of George Gershwin, Artie Shaw and Duke Ellington. "He was a cantor at a Harlem synagogue," says Tom. "His music is very expressive, free-flowing, and modern sounding, blending the sound of Harlem with traditional cantorial styles. We use his techniques in some pieces we do."
Overall, the duo of Tom and Suzanne Roberts is like a little slice of undiscovered history. But they're no mere museum piece -- you can expect this mélange of seminal Jewish-American and Afro-American culture to come alive in their capable hands. "There's a beat and rhythm that's very buoyant, as well as a poignancy to this music," Tom continues. "It really hits you on a lot of different levels, physically and emotionally. You'll be shaking your rump, but your heart will be touched and your spirit will be levitated."
Tom and Suzanne Roberts 8 p.m. Fri., Jan. 25. James Simon Sculpture Studio, 305 Gist St., Uptown. $10. 412-434-5629