Shanir Blumenkranz’s extensive contribution to the world of radical Jewish music can only be compared to Robbie Shakespeare’s formative influence on reggae. Blumenkranz plays on numerous projects issued by the Tzadik label — so many of them, in fact, that his recognizable style of bass playing is virtually inseparable from the sound has come to define so many of Tzadik’s Radical Jewish Music projects, including Pharaoh’s Daughter, Pitom, Edom, Rashanim and Kef, among others. He has closely collaborated with label’s producer, John Zorn.
So it is particularly exciting to see Blumenkranz in the role of band leader. With guitarists Eyal Maoz and Aram Bajakian, as well as Kenny Grohowski on drums, Blumenkranz has released “Abraxas: Book of Angels 19,” a set of compositions penned by Zorn. Exchanging his usual electric bass for gimbri — an acoustic African instrument with three strings made of goat skin — Blumenkranz propels his ensemble with raw and intricate rhythms.
In contrast with the previous “Book of Angels” rendition by David Krakauer — a darkly whimsical, phantasmagoric record defined by its androgynous plasticity — Blumenkranz’s album is an all-male, three-guitar-and-drums, no-nonsense affair. Most of the tunes apply a jazz approach to the hard rocking, heavy metal sound. Many tracks are danceable, and yet the impulse towards rocking out goes hand in hand with abstraction, a collision of textures and colors.
Unlike their pudgy, cherubic, church-tending counterparts, in Jewish mythology angels are not what you’d call angelic. Ominous and conflicted, with a penchant for irony and obscure turns of phrase, they are messages from the personal and collective subconscious for us to wrestle with. These angels create the parameters of our formative and deformative moments. Perhaps it is in such a context that one might understand “The Book of Angels,” a collection of scores penned by avant-garde composer and saxophonist John Zorn. A number of musical groups have tackled these compositions; the latest encounter is David Krakauer’s “Pruflas: The Book of Angels Vol. 18,” released on Tzadik Records earlier this year.
David Krakauer is among the world’s foremost klezmer clarinetists. He has worked with diverse collaborators, from the neo-classical Kronos Quartet to legendary funk trombonist Fred Wesley. What he brings to this date, in addition to a virtuosic treatment of the score, is the ability to extract from his clarinet sounds one indeed associates with dark corners of the subconscious.
“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.
Jamie Saft is far from the only musician who questions and complicates notions of cultural, musical and ethnic identity. That’s bread and butter for many of the artists featured on the Tzadik label, which has now put out six of Saft’s albums, including his latest, “Borscht Belt Studies.” Neither, on this release, does Saft clash, counterpoise, or remix musical styles. Fluid movement in and out musical paradigms and approaches, an approach already familiar to his fans, is not the point. Rather, the album appears to be, indeed, a study — an exploration or rethinking.
Personnel on the date is minimal. Four tracks are solo, with Saft on piano or Fender Rhodes. Six tracks are duos with Ben Goldberg on the clarinet; the last composition is a trio with drums and bass. On the duo tracks, while Goldberg plays klezmer-flavored lines, Saft delves into something that hardly even resembles klezmer. Surrounding the plaintive clarinet solos, the piano work is more than mere comping, or rhythmic background textures. I would venture to say that Saft is exploring the emotional and psychological roots of klezmer, the music’s darker underside, or perhaps even the underside of the people who brought this music to American shores. Whatever the sonic textures may represent — and that is always an elusive question with instrumental music — one can overhear modern and experimental jazz, deep blues, folk, and classical music, all wrapped around a gothic, darkly mysterious feeling.
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’:
“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.
In 2006, when the MacArthur Foundation bestowed its “Genius” award on John Zorn, the panel of judges only underscored what many fans already knew. Zorn’s extensive output as a composer of avant-garde music, a first-rate saxophone player, and a leader of a group of downtown New York musicians, has been vastly important and influential.
His latest album, “Interzone,” recently released on his own Tzadik Records label, is a reminder that the maestro still remains on the outer edges of experimental music. Zorn is not only proficient in a multiplicity of styles and approaches, but has also attained a whole new level of fluidity of movement within them.
On the new record by the Israeli quintet Fogel and the Sheriffs, Jesus packs a gun, the Pope is a woman, and the Second Coming occurs in the bedroom. One song calls the Holocaust a “soiree”; another orders a Muslim woman to “put on a burka, baby” to hide her body, from her head to her clitoris. Long before the album’s final song declares, “I was crucified inside my mama’s womb,” the point is clear: nothing is too sacred to satire.
Produced by avant-garde guru John Zorn and released on his Tzadik label, “Exorcism” blends the blues with touches of jazz, punk and klezmer. Despite the superficial shock, these songs are meant as social commentary, not hate speech or blasphemy. The liner notes include a prominent image of a Star of David, quote the prophet Jeremiah, and praise “the High Holy One, Blessed be He, who brought us to life, maintained us alive and led us to this moment! AMEN!” It seems the band has no problem with faith, only with organized religion.
Listen to ‘Bless Me’:
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.
Back in 1997, “Buena Vista Social Club” introduced American audiences to a style of Cuban music that was popular in Havana in the 1950s. The album charmed the critics, topped the charts, spawned a documentary film, and was championed by Starbucks when the coffee behemoth decided to become a curator of world music.
Such a crossover seems unlikely with “Pastrami Bagel Social Club,” the debut album by AutorYno, a French trio who are playing in New York this week as part of the Tzadik Records Guitar Festival. With their pastiche of jazz precision, punk rock fury, and heavy metal bombast, AutorYno sounds like a funky soundtrack to the apocalypse. Along the way, they tip their hats to klezmer music and Jewish culture, most notably with a “Traditional Hora” that sounds like what might happen if you hired Metallica to play at your wedding.
As their name suggests, Pitom comes on suddenly. On Wednesday night, while pedestrians clustered outside a grungy Lower East Side dive bar ogling President Obama’s motorcade on its way to and from Anna Wintour’s hush-hush fundraiser, the raucous four-piece band took the stage inside and delivered a far more exciting show.
Following the always-delightful Xylopholks, guitarist Yoshie Fruchter and his musicians-in-arms took the stage at The Local 269 and played an intense single set that left the audience stunned. Along with Fruchter, whose sinewy guitar work forms the visual as well as sonic center of the band, Pitom is comprised of violinist Jeremy Brown, bassist Shanir Blumenkranz and drummer Kevin Zubek, phenomenal musicians all.
While more staid listeners might find Pitom’s deeply immersive instrumental music abrasive, its roughness is invigorating rather than jarring. They hardly hold back on the volume, yet each instrument comes across clear, even on a rudimentary barroom sound system.
The Jewish museum (Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme) in Paris greets its visitors with massive tombstones dating back to 11th century. There are also frail parchments, medieval megillot, newspaper clips of the Dreyfus trial, and dim brass ritual objects. Imagine then, the shock and delight inspired by the exhibit that landed there this spring, alien as a spaceship: Radical Jewish Culture (RJC), a show focusing largely on avant-garde musicians, many of whose works appear on John Zorn’s Tzadik label. Though these artists are diverse in style, they have one common denominator: an intense interest in redefined, subverted, and indeed radical Jewish identity.
Raphaël Sigal, scholar and music aficionado, worked for the past four years along with his two friends Mathias Dreyfuss and Gabriel Siancas to bring the history and life of the movement to French audiences. Sigal studied comparative and Yiddish literature at the Sorbonne, taught French in Israeli universities, and is currently pursing his doctorate in French literature at New York University. The Arty Semite contributor Jake Marmer asked him about how you can have a musical exhibit in a museum, what it means to display a still-living culture, and the differences between French and American Jewry.
Jake Marmer: What was the impetus of putting together the Radical Jewish Culture exhibit in Paris?
There’s something special about enjoying a brilliant album alone, but there’s joy in sharing it with others. Since 2001, when Jewlia Eisenberg released “Trilectic,” I have had the former joy, but not the latter.
“Trilectic” was a brilliant concept album that set the writings of Walter Benjamin and Asja Lacis to eclectic vocal compositions that ran the gamut from Meredith Monk-inspired experimentation to doo-wop and Eskimo throat chanting. Jewlia’s band, Charming Hostess, followed up “Trilectic” in 2004 with “Sarajevo Blues,” another genre-defying piece of avant-garde composition, chock-full of hooky melodies and jaw-dropping moments of unconventional beauty.
Unlike many practitioners of Jewish music, percussionist and composer Roberto Rodriguez doesn’t view Jewishness as a simple war chest of traditions and musical idioms to draw from. Instead, Rodriguez’s Cuban-Jewish All Stars project is a more strict interpretation of what a particular moment in Jewish history must have sounded like.
The era is pre-revolutionary Cuba, where a sizable community of both Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews contributed to a vibrant multi-ethnic cultural mosaic. And if Rodriguez’s July 15 concert at the The Jewish Museum of New York was any indicator, they enjoyed an incredible nightlife.
Rodriguez, who has performed in Joe Jackson’s band and for guitarist Marc Ribot’s Los Cubanos Postizos, was initially goaded into the Cuban-Jewish All Stars project by avant-garde jazz polymath and fellow New York musician John Zorn, who asked Rodriguez to make a “Jewish album” for his Tzadik record label. The result was 2001’s “El Danzon de Moises,” followed by “Baila! Gitano Baila!” in 2004 and “Timba Talmud” in 2009. Echoing the titles of these albums, his Thursday show was similarly billed as “a unique Latin klezmer sound that echoes Cuban roots dance music and traditional Jewish klezmer.”
While Rodriguez is clearly inspired by klezmer, however, those looking for Cuban interpretations of klezmer tunes, like those performed by David Buchbinder’s Odessa/Havana ensemble, will be surprised. Though Rodriguez is certainly aware of the klezmer motifs that he uses, they are little more than broad inspirations.
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