This year, we ventured to create a set of five memorable 2013 releases that are not easily defined either as “Jewish music,” jazz, or klezmer, but represent alternative, thought-provoking musical experiments, rooted in yet transgressing Jewish musical traditions.
Please note that the works below are listed in alphabetical order — there’s no ranking here.
“Pillar Without Mercy”
In this release, young klezmer trombonist Dan Blacksberg dredges up heavy metal’s darkest essence, situating it within the klezmer/niggun vocabulary. Thrashing, and not even ironic? And yet, the heavy metal uninitiated (myself included) may just come to realize how oddly soulful this music is, and how profound a catharsis it may engender. This is not about exorcising your demons, nor about teenage angst, but a truly intelligent — even intellectual — encounter with massive noise that surrounds us and that we’ve been absorbed into. So much so that, as niggun references and melody lines emphasize, the very spiritual essence may just be bound-up somewhere deep in this register. See some recent footage here.
The name “Rothschild” means different things to different people.
In 1902, Sholem Aleichem wrote the monologue “Ven ikh bin Rothschild” (“If I Were a Rothschild”), which would be famously turned into the song “If I Were a Rich Man” by Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock for “Fiddler on the Roof.” To Sholem Aleichem and generations of Jews before and since, the name signified the wealthiest of wealthy Jews.
There are those who don’t think highly of the family at all. A quick Google search reveals dozens of sites claiming that it controls the world financial markets, and several other conspiracy theories ranging from true (the family did back the British war effort against Napoleon) to totally bonkers (no, David Icke, Hitler wasn’t a Rothschild that was given power to help reshape the world in the family’s vision).
When I was growing up in the early 1980s, my mother would emphasize the fact that my pediatrician was a Rothschild, though not one of the Rothschilds. But it was still worth mentioning. When people talk about a cabal of Jewish bankers, they’re usually talking about the Rothschilds.
The book “The Baroness: The Search for Nica, the Rebellious Rothschild,” gives us a different sort of Rothschild. Pannonica, the rebellious daughter of Charles Rothschild, gave up the life of a European aristocrat to move to New York and support jazz icon Thelonious Monk. What makes “The Baroness” even more intriguing is that it was written by Nica’s niece and fellow Rothschild, Hannah, and is one of the few books on the family written by an actual Rothschild.
Earlier this year, the Library of Congress website analyzed an unpublished 1946 jazz recording which the Library acquired last year of a jam session in Oklahoma City featuring trumpeter Sonny Berman, a talent well worth remembering. Born Saul Berman in New Haven in 1925, Sonny was sassy, no-holds-barred, and witty, blithely adept at be-bop as an online recorded excerpt indicates. It’s entitled “Sonny,” a tune which the composer and guitarist Chuck Wayne dedicated to Berman. Wayne never copyrighted “Sonny,” and Miles Davis appropriated it a few years later, retitling — and copyrighting — it as “Solar”. Berman’s glory was brief; he died of a heroin overdose in 1947.
Yet he had time to record an LP in the mid-forties entitled “Sonny Berman - Beautiful Jewish Music” with the Brooklyn-born saxophonist Al Cohn and trumpeter Irvin “Marky” Markowitz. Unlike jazz albums which memorably interpret genuine Yiddish and Israeli melodies, such as “Terry Gibbs Plays Jewish Melodies in Jazz Time” and Shelly Manne’s “My Son the Jazz Drummer,” Berman’s “Beautiful Jewish Music” was distinctly less literal in content. Instead, it features works from Berman’s repertoire which are not specifically Jewish, such as “Woodchopper’s Holiday,” “Sonny’s Blues,” and “Sonny Speaks Out,” suggesting that whatever he played became “Jewish music” ipso facto.
This strong sense of Yiddishkeit came from a career which began early. Berman started touring at age sixteen and eventually worked with the bandleaders Louis Prima, Harry James, Benny Goodman, and Woody Herman. It was in the last-mentioned jazzman’s ensemble that, as Barry Ulanov wrote in his 1952 “History of Jazz In America,” Berman became “one of the leading actors in the band’s troupe of Jewish comedians,” spouting Yiddish phrases and executing pratfalls alongside such musicians as Irv Lewis and Sam Marowitz.
Ulanov adds that circa 1944, Berman was “end man in [Herman’s] trumpet section, a funny kid whose square countenance looked so much like the front of a subway car that it earned him the extraordinary sobriquet of ‘BMT-face.’” Jokes apart, Berman’s artistry was admired by all, as Ulanov notes: “Sonny’s solos, those long cadences and flattened notes piercing the wildest up-tempo jazz with such lovely poignancy…Sonny was funny with a touch of sadness, sad with a meaning, sorrowful on his horn, touching as a person when you got to know him and got beyond the frantic exterior.” The Library of Congress’s web posting is a welcome excuse to get behind that exterior and relish the real Sonny Berman.
Listen to Sonny Berman solo in a 1945 recording with Woody Herman and his Orchestra here.
Listen to Berman in 1946 with his own ensemble, Sonny Berman’s Big Eight here.
Inside the Village Vanguard in Manhattan’s West Village, photographs of legendary jazz musicians line the dark-green walls. Stage left, above a portrait of a stolid John Coltrane, hangs a shot of the pianist Fred Hersch playing a song, his eyes closed, an intense yet peaceful aura about him.
Hersch, 56, is relatively young to have earned his spot on the wall, which features many players who have passed away. But he certainly deserves it. Though perhaps under-appreciated in the wider world of music, Hersch is one of the most respected musicians in jazz, known for his refined style and unapologetic devotion to his craft. That style, however, is easy to miss: Hersch is not outwardly virtuosic; he forgoes showy displays in favor of grace and subtlety and precision.
On September 11, Hersch brought his trio to the Village Vanguard to kick off a week-long run at the club. The band — including Hersch on piano, John Hébert on bass and Eric McPherson on drums — is heralding the release of its new two-disc set, “Alive at the Vanguard,” recorded in February during its last residency there.
Big bands have been making some of the most interesting and pleasurable music in jazz today. If you haven’t heard of them already, these groups are worth your attention: John Hollenbeck’s Large Ensemble, Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, Orrin Evans’s Captain Black Big Band and Maria Schneider’s Jazz Orchestra.
There is also a new big band album from the pianist Ezra Weiss, “Our Path to This Moment,” which may not sit in the same elevated ranks as the groups listed above. But it is as refined a statement as any jazz musician, recording for the first time with an orchestra, could make.
Weiss, who is based in Portland, Ore., has recorded with big bands before — as on “Get Happy,” his 2007 release — but never as a big band proper. He’s an experienced arranger and composer; it only makes sense that he should put out such an album now.
While Israel has been producing ever more, and ever-more-competent, jazz musicians since a handful of pioneers burst onto the scene in the early 1990s, a new crop of aspirants has appeared, encompassing those who have the kind of style and savvy that at once recalls that past and suggests a future. Here are some to watch — none older than 30, all ready to grab the spotlight.
Haggai Cohen Milo, bass — A multidimensional talent, he reveals a flair for dramatic contrast in both his music and his photography, another avocation.
Uri Gurvich, saxophone — Matching a big sound with an expansive approach that draws on many cultures, his concept is global in scope but Jewish at its core.
Gilad Hekselman, guitar — Lyrical or roiling, structured or free, his writing and playing are unpredictable yet unwaveringly attentive to context.
Gadi Lehavi, piano — Arguably a one of a kind prodigy, adamant in his refusal to be pigeonholed, he is, in the middle of his teen years, already being heard in elite circles.
Shai Maestro, piano — A fondness for melody, an ability to articulate and a knack for communicating inside the classic trio format are central to his presentation.
Nadav Remez, guitar — An unassuming artist with a penchant for indie rock, he is forging a style built on understatement, logic and clarity.
Tamir Shmerling, bass — Influenced by American funk and the blues, his musical personality reflects an unabashed affinity for these idioms without denying his Israeli roots.
The pianist Joe Alterman is only 23 years old, but on his new album, “Give Me The Simple Life,” he’s managed to round up an impressive array of jazz veterans to play by his side. Houston Person, the soulful tenor saxophonist, joins in on four tracks while bassist James Cammack and drummer Herlin Riley — who both play in Ahmad Jamal’s stellar trio — accompany Alterman throughout.
It’s a lovely record, full of romantic ballads and medium swing numbers — the kinds of standards that are the sine qua non of a traditional piano trio outing like this one.
In his playing, Alterman references — intentionally or not — a number of jazz pianists who worked in outstanding trios. The title track is a good place to start. You’ll find Red Garland block chords, Vince Guaraldi’s left hand stabs and soloing in the upper octaves of the keyboard à la Jamal.
I don’t mean to suggest that Alterman’s sound is mere pastiche; it’s more than that. He seems to be placing himself in an African-American aesthetic lineage that favors hard-swinging rhythms and virtuosity refined by a devotion to melody and the blues. The late Oscar Peterson, whose song, “Kelly’s Blues,” Alterman plays on the album, represents that style well.
At first, I didn’t know how to listen to “The Pirkei Avot Project, Vol. 1.”
Taking eight short excerpts from Pirkei Avot, a compendium of rabbinical aphorisms, jazz guitarist Amanda Monaco creates a wise and playful interpretation of some serious material. She uses popular passages, such as Hillel’s saying, “If I am not for me, who will be? If I am for myself alone, what am I? And if not now, when?” as well as lesser-known teachings such as, “There is nothing more becoming a person than silence” and “Be a tail to lions rather than a head to foxes.”
As I listened, I wondered how the music conveyed the ideas behind the text. Even though I had translations of the Hebrew and Aramaic words, to me they registered mostly as sound. And because this is a jazz album, it’s the sound that matters most.
Tzadik Records’ Radical Jewish Culture releases often split the difference between jazz and klezmer. Both genres drag long canonical histories behind them like the train on a wedding dress. Both are easily innovated upon, prone to flights of improvisation, and adept at locating individual musicians in the midst of a vast history. Joel Rubin and Uri Caine on “Azoy Tsu Tsveyt” rarely stray far from the most essential trappings of their respective genres.
Though many of Tzadik’s albums mine the territory between klezmer and jazz, few show the seams of that synthesis quite as explicitly as Rubin and Caine. It’s not surprising. Whereas other albums often blur genre lines, Azoy clearly delineates where klezmer ends and jazz begins. Rubin, an ethnomusicologist and acclaimed klezmer musician, plays clarinet throughout the album. He riffs off of canonical 78 rpm recordings of klezmer star Naftule Brandwein’s own clarinet styling, such as on the opening to “Kiever.” His playing is skillful, adroit, and his instrument has a warm timbre. Caine’s playing, on a Fender Rhodes and Hammond Organ, is more playful.
Listen to ‘Kiever’:
Photo by Tal Argov
September 2011 marks the beginning of a new and promising year in Israeli Jazz. While the Forward has already covered the story of young Israeli jazz prodigy Gadi Lahavi making waves in the international jazz scene, a news item with greater impact for the local Israeli music scene was the launch of the new music label OutNow Recordings on August 23.
The Arty Semite caught up with guitarist and label co-founder Yair Yona right before he embarked on a mini-tour of the U.S. in support of his upcoming album “World Behind Curtains.” The highlight of the four-stop tour will be a performance at this year’s Hopscotch Music Festival in Raleigh, North Carolina on September 8, alongside acts such as The Flaming Lips and Dinosaur Jr. frontman J Mascis.
NICA’S DREAM: THE LIFE AND LEGEND OF THE JAZZ BARONESS
W. W. Norton, 272 pages, $26.95
Pannonica Rothschild, or “Nica,” as she was called, tried very hard to be an upstanding member of the famous Jewish banking family. She went to the right schools, married the right man (a French baron, no less), and had five children.
Ultimately, though, she couldn’t do it. Seduced by jazz, she fled to New York and became patron to dozens of musicians, most famously Thelonious Monk.
Her fascinating life is the subject of a new book titled “Nica’s Dream: The Life and Legend of the Jazz Barones,” the second recent effort to tell this story. Two years ago, Nica’s grandniece, Hannah Rothschild, produced a documentary, “The Jazz Baroness,” which covered much of the same ground.
The British branch of the Rothschilds had a storied history. In 1807 Lionel Rothschild easily won election to the House of Commons, but was denied his seat because he was Jewish. He was finally allowed in 11 years later, following a change in the wording of the oath of office — an oath he took on a copy of the Old Testament.
“Rockets on the Balcony,” Omer Klein’s fourth album and his Tzadik Records debut, is also his first self-consciously Jewish record. In the liner notes, Klein explains that when John Zorn first approached him about the project, he was reluctant to make “calculated evaluations as to what counts as Jewish music and what doesn’t.” But over the course of working on the album, Klein developed a knack for labeling each of his pieces as either “Jewish” or “not-Jewish.”
For those of us who cling to a romantic vision of the creative process — an image of the artist’s various influences simmering together in some delicious subconscious stew — it jars a little to hear Klein describe his oeuvre in these stark terms. The good news, though, is that Klein is a gifted jazz pianist who can riff on just about anything. A few of the pieces on “Rockets on the Balcony” started as what Klein describes as an “exercise” in writing folk tunes, and in their clumsiest moments, we can too easily hear the composer’s effort to come up with something that sounds homespun. Blessedly, though, these introductions don’t last long; far more exciting than Klein’s faux-folk melodies are the pleasing improvisations that come out of them.
Although they’ve had a number of earlier releases, “Where we come from… Where we’re going,” a challenging CD that is almost equal parts avant-garde jazz and klezmer music, was my introduction to Klezmokum, an Amsterdam-based band (Mokum is the old Jewish name for Amsterdam) led by Burton Greene, a pianist with a long history and discography dating back to the early 1960s. One of the other band members, clarinetist Perry Robinson, has been a significant musician on the free jazz scene for about as long as Greene.
Greene, who arranged all of the dozen compositions on this 70-minute CD, notes that “Where we come from… Where we’re going” is “the third in a trilogy of my arrangements and extended compositions based on little known, mainly Jewish works of composers active since before World War II until the present time.” Despite the emphasis on contemporary Jewish composers, there are also several traditional pieces on the album’s track list.
Crossposted from Haaretz
When one is talking about jazz, the word “dissonance” often is heard in reference to avant-garde, cacophonic-sounding music. At the Red Sea Winter Jazz Festival, held over the weekend for the first time (as the new, younger sibling of the veteran Red Sea Jazz Festival, which will celebrate its 25th anniversary in August), the music was not cacophonic, but a different sort of dissonance hovered over the festivities: climactic dissonance. Watching a jazz festival in Eilat when you are covered in three layers of clothing, and still feel chilled to the bone, is like being in an alternate universe.
Jazz in Eilat during the annual festival in August routinely stirs metaphors of hell, since it is about 38 degrees Celsius in cool years. But last weekend we sat and listened to jazz in Eilat with two pairs of socks on. Guitarist and piano player Egberto Gismonte, whose performance brought the second day of festival events to a close, exclaimed at the start of his show: “It was so cold behind the scenes, that I just had to come here and sit down to play the piano, to get warmer.”
Gabriele Coen’s “Awakening” is a dark, moody collection of pieces built around complex, syncopated rhythms and long, spinning melodies in minor modes. Coen and his band mates are clearly accomplished jazz musicians, and together they produce moments of understated elegance. But don’t think of playing this album at your next cocktail party — your guests would likely take their conversations into another room. This is music that not only demands active listening, but also seems designed to engender anxiety.
The album’s title track, which clocks in at over eight minutes, alternates between high tension and relative calm without ever building to a particularly cathartic climax. It starts with a chaotic drum fill accompanied by improvised squeaks and blats from Coen’s saxophone before settling into a rhythmic groove laid down by the bass.
Listen to ‘Awakening’:
Crossposted from Haaretz
Here’s an idea for a wonderful festival of new Israeli jazz: Bring together under one roof all (or most) of the local musicians who have put out albums in recent years under the New York label Tzadik Records. In the past 10 years, Tzadik — the company owned by avant-garde composer/musician John Zorn, high priest of the fascinating downtown Manhattan jazz scene — has recorded several of Israel’s most creative musicians.
The imaginary festival, which could be called Tzadikim and would hopefully take place in Tel Aviv rather than New York, would feature performances by saxophonist Daniel Zamir (who helped arouse Zorn’s enthusiasm for Israeli music more than a decade ago), singer Ayelet Rose Gottlieb, guitarist Eyal Maoz, the band Pisuk Rahav (which performed last week in Tel Aviv, and gave people a taste of its complex/wild potential), guitarist Ori Dakari, saxophonist Uri Gurvich and pianist Alon Nechushtan. Zorn himself would, of course, be a guest performer on saxophone; maybe he’d even bring with him to Israel some of the wonderful musicians who regularly play with him and who left an indelible impression when they played in Tel Aviv three years ago.
Crossposted from Haaretz
On Friday morning, the ninth-grade students in the jazz program at the Thelma Yellin High School for Arts were learning about the history of jazz with their beloved teacher, Amit Golan. That same day there was a test. The questions were about Duke Ellington, Art Tatum and other early jazz giants, whom Golan had taught his students to love. Because the test finished early, and there remained another hour of the double lesson, Golan suggested to his class that they go down to the yard and play basketball. He, too, joined the game.
“We went downstairs, started playing and after a few minutes I saw that Amit was getting tired and breathing heavily,” said one of the students, Eyal Tzur. A few minutes later Golan collapsed. A Magen David Adom crew summoned to the school was unable to revive him. He died of a heart attack, at the age of 46.
Gaucho’s “Pearl,” released last month on Porto Franco Records and launched at the Jewish Music Festival of Berkeley, Calif., is the perfect accompaniment to a lazy autumn afternoon. Channeling the sounds of 1930s Paris, the San Francisco-based sextet plays the kind of gentle, sometimes-jubilant, sometimes-melancholy swing that doesn’t make you want to get up and dance so much as lie around and reminisce about bygone nights spent carousing. Like the best Gypsy jazz, this music is coyly nostalgic; it masquerades as carefree but leaves you with a mysterious ache.
For their fourth album, Gaucho have teamed up with the New York-based jazz vocalist Tamar Korn, and this collaboration makes for some of the music’s most exciting moments. Korn’s voice is high and girlish, with an uncanny tremor that makes it sound like it’s been lifted directly off of an old record. On the album’s first track, “Sing On,” a mischievous piece written by bandleader Dave Ricketts, Korn trades solo lines with cornetist Leon Oakley. The effect is humorous because Korn is such a good mimic, belting out brassy squawks of her own. (Later, in drummer Pete Devine’s tune “Little Sweetie,” her scat syllables take the form of distinctly feline yowls.) Following saxophone and cornet solos in the group’s jaunty rendition of the jazz standard “Avalon,” Korn sings the melody freely, with big swoops and operatic flourishes, as the drums and bass (Ari Munkres) maintain a brisk, chugging groove underneath.
Listen to ‘Sing On’:
Crossposted from Frontier Psychiatrist
While many new indie bands are busy recycling the sounds of the 1980s, the Xylopholks look deeper into the past. With a blend of earnestness and irony, their zany music draws from ragtime and jazz from the Roaring ’20s and features the xylophone, an instrument now more prevalent in elementary school classrooms than in pop music. And because they always perform in furry animal suits, the Xylopholks didn’t even need to buy costumes to play on Halloween.
The star of the quartet is Jonathan “Skunky” Singer, a No-H Jon whose dexterity, speed, and precision on the xylophone are matched only by the casualness of his stage presence. At a Halloween party in Brooklyn on Saturday, Singer pounded his instrument at a breakneck pace while dressed in a skunk costume with a pink scarf and matching sunglasses. Meanwhile, the other Xylopholks accompanied him on banjo, acoustic bass, and drums, dressed as a chicken, floppy eared dog, and a giant banana, who attracted attention from a quartet of costumed gorillas lumbering on the dance floor.
Listen to the Xylopholks’ ‘The Moon, My Gun, My Baby’:
In the high-ceilinged atrium of the World Financial Center’s Winter Garden, Israeli bassist Avishai Cohen gave a free concert Saturday in a forest of palm trees. The show was part of Daniel Pearl World Music Days, an international network of concerts honoring the slain American journalist. For the project’s mission of reaffirming a commitment to tolerance and humanity, there was no better choice than Cohen.
Cohen was born in Israel in 1970 to a musical family. Inspired by legendary bassist Jaco Pastorius, he took up electric bass as a child. After serving in an Israel Defense Forces army band, Cohen moved to New York, where he lived for 12 years, working with artists in the city’s Latin jazz community, and playing alongside pianist and composer Chick Corea. After releasing four albums with Corea, Cohen launched a solo career on his own label, Razdaz Recordz. Now based in Tel Aviv, Cohen is back in the United States in support of his latest album, “Aurora.” Cohen’s 11th release, “Aurora” is the first to showcase his vocals, and includes songs in Hebrew, English, Spanish and Ladino, the language of Cohen’s Sephardic roots.