The Arty Semite

Latin Rhythms for Tired Feet

By Matthew Kassel

On Friday afternoon I walked from my home in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn to 34th Street in Manhattan. From there I caught a train uptown to Symphony Space to see Arturo O’Farrill and his Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra, with assorted guests, blend Latin rhythms with Jewish melodies.

John Abbott

My feet ached when I got to the venue and I probably should have taken a cab or a bus. (Subway service into Manhattan was suspended in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.) But it felt extremely good to plop down into a chair for roughly two hours and feel the vibrant pulse of Latin music radiate from the stage before me.

Called “Falafel, Freilach and Frijoles: From Mambo to Borscht,” the show drew inspiration from the Latin dance bands of Tito Puente, Machito Grillo and others that toured the resorts of the Borsch Belt in the middle of the 20th Century. It also gave a nod to Irving Fields’s kitschy 1959 release, “Bagels and Bongos,” which served as a kind of precedent.

The 18-piece orchestra opened with “Holiday Mambo,” which uses the melody of “Hava Nagila.” It was recorded by Machito and his Afro-Cuban Orchestra more than 50 years ago and arranged by the late Cuban composer Chico O’Farrill, father of Arturo.

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Big Bands Are Back, Baby!

By Matthew Kassel

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.

Courtesy of Ezra Weiss

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.

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From Jewish Folk to Jazz Piano

By Matthew Kassel

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.

Nir Levy Photography

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.

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Jews Get Musical With Ecstatic Summer

By Matthew Kassel

Judd Greenstein is as much an impresario as he is a composer, and sometimes the line between those roles can blur. On Saturday, June 30, on an outdoor stage in the World Financial Center Plaza in Manhattan, he performed his own music in a free concert to kick off Ecstatic Summer, produced by the arts organization he directs, New Amsterdam Presents.

Courtesy of Six Points Fellowship

Greenstein played selections from his new work, “Sh’lomo,” commissioned by the Six Points Fellowship. A musical interpretation of the life of King Solomon, the work doesn’t appear to be finished yet, but the four pieces I saw — performed by his nine-piece band, the Yehudim — were bright and buoyant and promising.

The strongest piece was “These Are The Sons of Israel,” gliding smoothly through sections of choral incantation, jazz-fusion and synth-pop. It was undergirded by an Afrobeat pulse, with funky guitar and bass. Greenstein, on Fender Rhodes, confidently traded lead vocals with Olga Bell, also on keyboards.

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At 32, Regina Spektor Is Better Than Ever

By Matthew Kassel

“Today we’re younger than we ever gonna be,” Regina Spektor sings in the balladic “Small Town Moon,” the first track on “What We Saw From The Cheap Seats,” her sixth solo album.

It’s the kind of sappy phrase you might find written on one of those motivational posters that are taped to the walls of high school classrooms. But it works in the song, which, as far as I can tell, is about taking your time with getting older.

It’s one of the best songs on an album full of good songs that include bouncy jaunts, ballads and satires. Spektor, the Russian-born singer and pianist, says the line three times, over rich piano chords and minimalist bass and drums, and after the second time, she lets out a girlish “Whooo!” that sets a playful tone.

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Monday Music: Hardcore Mysticism

By Matthew Kassel

“Secrets of Secrets,” a new album by clarinetist Aaron Novik, has an air of doom about it.

The album takes its name and inspiration from a five-book series written by the Jewish mystic Rabbi Eleazar Rokeach, who lived in Worms and in 1196 witnessed crusaders slaughter his wife and children.

This isn’t the first time Novik has incorporated written sources into his music. “Floating World Vol. 1,” released last year, paid tribute to the poetry of fringe artists of the Mission District area in San Francisco, where Novik is based.

But “Secrets of Secrets,” composed of five tracks all longer than 11 minutes, is more abstruse than that. The music can be hard to listen to: tense and muddy and violent and powerful.

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Monday Music: A John Zorn Christmas

By Matthew Kassel

The CD case to John Zorn’s first Christmas record, “A Dreamers Christmas,” comes as a sort of stocking. Reaching into the sleeve you’ll find, along with the CD, a sheet of stickers that could represent a new line of holiday-themed Giga Pets.

You might be tempted to over-think this album, with its cute and somewhat disturbing iconography, especially if you’ve come to expect music from Zorn more agitating than these lovely tracks. You shouldn’t. Zorn released this album through his own label, Tzadik, which puts out a steady stream of avant-garde recordings. And although he only served as producer and arranger here, this jazz album is as much Zorn’s brainchild as it is the Dreamers’, the band he assembled.

With Marc Ribot on guitar, Kenny Wollesen on vibraphone, Joey Baron on drums, Jamie Saft on keyboards, Trevor Dunn on bass and Cyro Baptista on percussion, the Dreamers play catchy, riff-based music that reflects a wide range of styles: surf-rock, lounge, exotica, blues and straight-ahead jazz. They do this with an appealing earnestness that works wonderfully on a Christmas album.

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Monday Music: Sounds of the Fathers

By Matthew Kassel

Geoff Smith

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.

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