The Intersection of Art and Innovation, cont’d: Evolving Models of Music — A Conversation with Jon Madof

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On Friday I had the opportunity to do another Google Hangout, part of an ongoing series called “The Intersection of Art and Innovation”.

(Some previous discussions can be found HERE, HERE and HERE.)

It was my great pleasure to speak with Jon Madof, a remarkably talented artist who happens to be one of my personal favorite musicians from the past decade. Check him out online, and I’ll put some snippets below, with links to previous pieces I’ve written about him and his music.

As expected, and consistent with the themes that have developed during the course of this series, the primary topics involve how music gets made and marketed in an increasingly digital world where previously unimaginable avenues of distribution and connection exist. Of course there is also the tension inherent in the ubiquity of digital content and the ease with which it can be pirated. How can an honest musician thrive, or even survive, when it’s so simple for less scrupulous opportunists to make the work available, for free, on illegal sites?

Beyond that, we interrogated the pros and cons of today’s scene and agreed that, on balance, it’s still a remarkable time to be creating art: what we might sacrifice in potential revenue, we benefit in terms of exposure. All artists, whatever they are up to, must acknowledge that there are ways to advertise, promote and connect that even a decade ago would have been fantasy. Madof confirmed that, all irony aside, it’s now possible to make genuine, personal connections online; the same forum that is so frequently lambasted as being cold and impersonal is actually a free and painless way to converse across countries and cultures.

We also agreed that we are very much in early days: the ways we make and sell music (and literature, for that matter) are still shaking out, and only one thing is guaranteed: the people who will lose out are the people resigned to the status quo or continue to lament a way of working and living that is gone and never coming back.

Check out our 30 minute conversation, below.

Here is a link to a long, awesome feature on Zion80 wherein Madof talks about the process of creating –and leading– a 13 piece band. Some key takeaways:

At a concert in New York City a few months ago I saw two things I’d never witnessed before. The first was a group of Jewish jazz musicians playing Afrobeat. The second was a yarmulke soaring through the air in the midst of a guitar solo.

So, if Jewish Afrobeat played at a pace where no yarmulke is safe sounds like your thing, boy have I got a band for you. And even if you don’t especially care for, or have never even heard Jewish Jazz or Afrobeat, Zion80 comes highly recommended.

Madof, continuing his fruitful association with John Zorn’s Tzadik label, is not making a departure so much as a logical if inspired continuation of the ground he’s covered the past decade. All of his projects thus far (with his band Rashanim) have explored traditional Jewish sounds with a skillful blend of surf music, thrash, jazz and calmer acoustic. Each successive effort has seen Madof stretching and pushing himself farther, in as well as out, utilizing exotic instruments with feeling always at the forefront.

The disc is a triple-threat: an ideal introduction to Zion80 as swell as Kuti and Carlebach (both of whom will reward interested listeners). Where Kuti’s legendary jams are sprawling, sometimes exhausting affairs, Madof’s arrangements are tight and accessible. Every player gets a chance to shine, and the full range of instruments is ably represented throughout.

From 2009, another piece that discusses his trio Rashanim. Their album, The Gathering, was my favorite of the year and remains in heavy rotation. Some key takeaways:

So, who are Rashanim? They are a jazz trio operating out of New York City who describe themselves on their website as a “Jewish power trio: Rashanim (‘noisemakers’ in Hebrew) combines the power of rock with the spontaneity of improvisation, deep Middle Eastern grooves and mystical Jewish melodies.” Led by guitarist Jon Madof, the band also includes bassist Shanir Ezra Blumenkranz and drummer Mathias Kunzli. They record for John Zorn’s label Tzadik and are categorized in its “Radical Jewish Culture” series. (Being neither Jewish nor radical, I still find this concept rather rad, and to be certain, some of the very best music in the world is being created on Zorn’s middle-finger-to-the-industry label.)

So…what does it sound like? The music is impossible to isolate or explain simply, in part because it incorporates so many disparate influences, using them all as a point of departure. Madof is quite clearly deeply grounded in tradition (both religious and musical), but his invocation of other places and times are very rooted in a modern sensibility. Klezmer? Ancient Jewish music? Jam-band? Surf guitar? All of the above: it’s definitely jazz and it is certainly imbued with a distinctively Jewish sensibility. Above all, it rocks.

Well, the great news is that we should properly relish the runaway democratization of content, with artists (like John Zorn) creating their own labels to more effectively disseminate their unfiltered (and unsanitized) vision. This is happening with all art, but musicians have arguably taken most advantage of the opportunities inherent in the increasingly viable DIY model. This, of course, is a very positive development for both artists and their audience. That said, we are still very much living in a corporate-sponsored country where suit-wearing weasels determine the bottom line based on a focus-grouped free market. For an artist to survive in this era is not an inconsiderable achievement; for an artist to thrive, defiantly crafting an original voice and sharing that vision with people, is cause for genuine celebration. That a musician like Jon Madof is fully committed to expressing his gift of music is enough to restore one’s faith: in music and the people who make it.

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