10 for NYC by 10, on 9/11

art-kane-jazz-portrait-harlem-new-york-1958

New York City would be unimaginable without jazz, and vice versa.

Here then is a tribute for –and by– several musicians who help define and celebrate the cultural mecca of our known universe. On a day like today, it seems appropriate and right to acknowledge the artists that express the pain, grief, joy and delight –those things that comprise this fleet, miraculous time we have together. Their music is a living celebration of life, and a testament to what the best among us are capable of delivering.

How about four from the old guard, five from the new(er) guard and a final one from the epitome of so much of what makes The Big Apple such a special, truly incomparable place?

Kick it off with the king: Charles Mingus, one of his many (many) tributes to the amazing city that coursed through the blood pumping his huge heart:

(If you are new to this blog you may not know that I have a slight reverence for Chazz Mingus. More on that here.)

Put plainly: Arguably, no single musician was able to get the most out of this medium –at once celebrating every aspect of its history and potential, as well as incorporating other types of music and sound– as Charles Mingus did. Irascible, insatiable, indefatigable: his bass was his bull-horn and his compositional prowess (second-only to Duke Ellington) towers over the second-half of the century and casts an intimidating, all-encompassing shadow over anything anyone will subsequently come up with. He was that good, that huge, that immutable. And his music is infectious: it doesn’t require advanced degrees or a special cultural acumen to pick up what he’s putting down. Yes, he was political (and, as George Orwell famously declared, the opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude); yes he was often angry (imagine being a black man in the 1950s; imagine being a genius in America, at any time); yes he was intense. His passions fed his muse –and vice versa– and his imagination created some of the most ecstatic sounds you’ll ever enjoy. He willed himself to be heard and he refused to be silenced. His life, like Melville’s, was part and parcel of what we like to think we’re thinking about when we think about the American Dream, and all that this entails.

A scorcher from Sonny Rollins (more on him here, but here is the bottom line: The last century blessed America with more than a handful of geniuses whose lives and work will be studied and appreciated many, many centuries after they are gone. Rollins is most definitely on the short list of masters who can teach us a great deal about ourselves and how we should aspire to be, and in the process, as all great art inevitably does, make that life quest immeasurably richer and more enjoyable in the process).

Another native son, and icon we will appreciate as long as we have ears to hear (and his sidemen each, in turn, crank out some of the best solos ever caught on tape: first trumpet fire from Freddie Hubbard, then the most bad-ass bass solo from Jimmy Garrison and the typical roaring thunder from the mighty Elvin Jones):

Slowing it down, a tear-jerking tribute from the gentlest of giants, John Coltrane.

(A lot more on him here. My quick .02: For those whose definition of genius is either too encompassing or excessively narrow, John Coltrane poses no problems: there isn’t anyone who knows anything about music (in general) and jazz (in particular) who would contest that he is among the most prominent, impressive and influential artists to ever master an instrument. Furthermore, to put Coltrane and his unsurpassed proficiency in its simplest perspective, it might be suggested that no one has ever done anything as well as Coltrane played the saxophone. Plus, he was an exceptionally gifted composer and bandleader and, by all accounts, he was a generous and gentle human being, as well. All of which is to say, if there is anyone worthy of celebration in our contemporary American Idol Apocalypse, Coltrane should serve as both antidote and inspiration.)

And lest we forget, the man who took one of the biggest bites out of that apple, Miles Davis. (He needs little introduction, but if you are as yet unitiated, take care of that as soon as possible. Check it: Here was a man that could have coasted on a richly-deserved reputation, and even if he’d never strayed far from the formula he perfected in the mid-‘50s, or late ‘50s, or mid-‘60s (get the picture?), he would have undoubtedly made remarkable music. Of course, Miles scoffed at the notion of playing it safe, and constantly created challenges for himself. Like any exceptional artist, Miles was restless and did not (or could not allow himself to) care about yesterday. His legacy might be best summed up by suggesting that he was not interested merely in excellence; he wanted to matter. Having gone from being the young buck riding shotgun into bebop eternity with Charlie Parker in the ‘40s, to assembling some of the better players on the scene to form his first great quintet in the mid-‘50s, to surrounding himself with a young gang of geniuses almost half his age (his second great quintet in the mid-‘60s), the moves Miles made as the ‘70s began seem, with the benefit of hindsight, like magnetic fields pulling him into the future—and taking music with him.)

From his second quintet’s masterpiece Nefertiti, the appropriately entitled “Fall”, a glorious elegy for autumn, featuring some of Wayne Shorter’s most gorgeous writing and playing):

Aram Bajakian’s Kef, who made another one of my favorite albums last year (full review here). This is my bottom line appraisal on the debut recording from this remarkable young artist:

There are no unsatisfactory tracks to be found here, and while some may dazzle or impress more than others, the last two, “48 Days” and “La Rota”, warrant special mention. Alternately serene and sombre, these closing statements comprise an elegiac, deeply moving conclusion. There is beautiful music and there is moving music (the best, of course, can combine the two), and then there is music that goes to that other place which is at once inscrutable and oddly familiar. By the time the last notes have been played it will occur to the tuned-in listener that something significant is happening here. This is a different type of music.

Music remains the ultimate antidote against cynicism and apathy: all it asks is you lend it your ears and in return you may just get something that makes the world more beautiful than you thought possible. If that sentiment is, understandably, a bit much to process with a straight face, let it suffice to say Kef is as extraordinary an album as I can recall listening to in a very long time.

Yoshie Fruchter’s Pitom (here is my very positive review of their 2011 effort Blasphemy and Other Serious Crimes). Here is the conclusion of that piece:

By the end, Blasphemy and Other Serious Crimes is not unlike a good workout, on multiple levels. You should be exhausted by the experience but you mostly feel rejuvenated, aware that something meaningful has happened. There is emotional heft here and a vibe that engages the intellect. This is music that matters. Is it too soon to begin wondering—and anticipating—what Pitom is going to come up with next time out? Stay tuned.

Jon Madof’s Rashanim (much more on him and his band here). Writing about his masterful 2009 effort The Gathering, I concluded thusly:

So…healing music? What is that supposed to mean?

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.

Matthew Shipp, from one of my favorite albums (jazz or otherwise) of the last decade, Equilibrium:

Jamie Saft (more on his most recent effort with New Zion Trio, entitled Fight Against Babylon, here). I can’t say enough good things about this utterly original genius, but here’s a taste:

Zelig-like, Jamie Saft has been an indefatigable fixture in the downtown NYC music scene. Equal parts MVP and unsung hero, his presence—as player, producer and composer—is at once daunting and exhilarating. Anyone familiar with John Zorn’s Tzadik label will already be quite familiar with his work, but if any musician is inadequately described by labels and geography, it’s Saft. Granted, Tzadik’s mission statement is the promotion of music without boundaries or agenda, resulting in albums that shift comfortably between genres like jazz, classical and so-called world music. Still, even in the Tzadik stable, Saft has been all-world in terms of his reach and aspiration these last ten years and change.

Productive and diverse, Saft has steadily amassed a body of work that can rival any contemporary artist. There are practically too many quality items to count, but consider a random sample of high points: there is his involvement with Zorn’s Electric Masada project, The Dreamers series, and—to pick only two from a half-dozen from the remarkable Filmworks series—Workingman’s Death and In The Mirror of Maya Deren. He also figures prominently on Bobby Previte’s (enthusiastically recommended) Coalition of the Willing and original Masada trumpeter Dave Douglas’s Freak In. Then there is the work he’s released as a leader…Get the picture?

And last but far from least, the master. John Zorn, who over the past several decades has done as much as anyone to encourage and inspire the creation of meaningful music. (A lot more about him, here.) Here is an overview, with some recommended recordings (and cohorts) included:

In the early 2000’s Electric Masada, a semi-rotating cast of characters including Trevor Dunn (bass), Jamie Saft (keyboards) and Ikue Mori (laptop and electronics/effects), began to tackle the catalog. The live performances were incendiary (trust me) and all this time, Zorn continued to make other music (tons and tons of it), particularly his always-compelling series of film soundtracks (currently at Volume 23, and counting…). Then, roughly ten years after he completed the first Masada songbook, Zorn challenged himself to compose new material, and quickly found himself with another 100 (!!) compositions, which he christened Masada Book 2: The Book of Angels. Unlike the first book, all recorded by the (acoustic) quartet, this series has been handled by a variety of bands in and outside the NYC jazz circuit, including Medeski Martin and Wood, Secret Chiefs 3, Marc Ribot, Uri Caine, Koby Israelite and The Cracow Klezmer Band. It can be said, without the slightest hint of (intentional) hyperbole that this is by far some of the more moving music recorded so far this century: it is not comparable, really, to anything being created by anyone around at this time.

He is not from New York City, he is New York City. Here is perhaps his most somber and elegiac piece, “Kol Nidre” (more on that and what it signifies, here):

I hope that anyone who lost someone thirteen years ago, or suffers for any number of reasons due to the day that will define our new century, finds some peace and comfort. And as always, I encourage everyone to realize that while no music can completely heal a broken heart, it can go a very long way toward restoring your soul. Peace.

Share

In Defense of Good Sax, Part Five: The (Ongoing) Evolution of a Masterpiece

OC-245x300

1959 was a watershed year for jazz music (arguably the greatest single year for jazz in all history–which is saying a lot). Here’s a taste: Miles Davis Kind of Blue, John Coltrane Giant Steps, Charles Mingus Ah Um. That is like the holy trinity of jazz music; all from the same year. But in the not-so-silent shadows a young, relatively unknown alto saxophonist was poised to cause a stir that still reverberates today: Ornette Coleman’s provocatively titled The Shape of Jazz to Come.

Kind of Blue is correctly celebrated for establishing modal music, and a genuine evolution from bop and post-bop; Giant Steps is the apotheosis of the “sheets of sound” that John Coltrane had been practicing and perfecting for a decade; Ah Um is an encyclopedic history of jazz music, covering everyone and everything from Jelly Roll Morton to Duke Ellington. And each of those albums were immediately embraced, and remain recognized as genuine milestones today. But The Shape of Jazz to Come was incendiary and complicated: it inspired as much resistance as it did inspiration. Some folks (Mingus included) bristled that it was all so much sound and fury, signifying…little. But what Coleman (along with trumpet player Don Cherry, bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Billy Higgins — representing as solid a quartet as any that have made music, ever) achieved was, arguably, the most significant advancement since Charlie Parker hit the scene.

Of course, Parker was also misunderstood and dismissed when his frenetic, almost incomprehensibly advanced alto saxophone assault began to cause scales to drop from audiences’ eyes — if not their ears. Like any genuine iconoclasts of the avant garde, Parker and Coleman were not being new for newness sake; they had to fully grasp and master the idiom before they could transcend it. Tellingly, what was revolutionary and almost confrontational, then, seems rather tame and entirely sensible, now. Of course, it didn’t take 50 years for Coleman to resonate: he not only found his audience, John Coltrane –the all-time heavyweight champion– embraced his compatriot. He endorsed, and, crucially, he imitated. The Book of Revelation that Coltrane’s mid-’60s Impulse recordings comprise did, in many respects, grow directly out of the opening salvo fired by Coleman in ’59.

Perhaps the best known tune of the six originals is the opening track, “Lonely Woman”. It’s been established as a standard and has been covered by artists ranging from Billy Bang to Branford Marsalis (both of these efforts, incidentally, are sprawling, impressionistic extensions of the original; if the original is impossible to improve upon, both of these artists took Coleman’s diamond and added grit, depth and layers of feeling). “Lonely Woman” is, suffice it to say, a touchstone that myriad jazz musicians reference, turn to and worship, for understandable reasons.

Why? It is an uncanny composition, deceptively simple and almost unbearably emotional. In fact, I’m not sure I could think of another jazz performance that captures the visceral nature of human pain so poignantly. Of course it’s much more than that: as the title suggests, it certainly gives voice to a person in distress; it also conveys a more universal expression –one that is very vulnerable and distinctly personal. It achieves what our best art aspires to: an invocation of real experience, which is then enlarged and elevated so that it is at once part of us and much bigger than any one of us is capable of being. It renders perfect and profound what is so often otherwise flawed and feeble: our attempts to articulate what we most love and fear –especially when no one else is around.

So: here are five versions spanning five decades. The first, and indelible original from O.C. The second, an extended, longing tone poem by Branford Marsalis. The third, a somber and typically solid take by Kronos Quartet. The fourth, a somewhat whimsical homage from John Zorn. Finally, the amazing Dave Liebman utilizing the wood flute to bring an added sense of adventure and exotica. It is this last version that reminds me, again, that every time we may think we’ve heard everything or imagined anything worth thinking about, there are sensitive and brilliant souls amongst us who are capable of making us see the world with new ears.

Ornette Coleman (1959):

Branford Marsalis (1987):

Kronos Quartet (1987):

John Zorn (1989):

David Liebman (2010):

And more bonus versions.

Share

In Defense of Good Sax, Part Three (The Joy of Saxless Jazz)

zorn-196x300

Starring John Zorn and Marc Ribot.

So what happens when one of the most prolific and staggeringly gifted sax players (and composers) of our era, John Zorn, conducts his music sans sax? Marc Ribot happens. Which means magic happens.

These compositions, from the original Masada songbook, are given new life via Bar Kokhba. Whereas the Masada quartet, featuring Zorn on alto sax, Dave Douglas on trumpet, Greg Cohen on bass and the indefatigable Joey Baron on drums, performed the original compositions (featured on the Masada 10 part series, each disc coming highly recommended, especially volumes one, two, six and seven); here the original Bar Kokhba loses Zorn and Douglas and adds Mark Feldman (violin), Erik Friedlander (cello), Cyro Baptista (percussion) and the aforementioned guitar god, Marc Ribot.

First, appreciate the Masada quartet doing their thing (from Warsaw, 1999):

Now appreciate Bar Kokhba, from the same gig:

And one of the most sublime compositions (and performances) you’ll ever see/hear:

Share

50 Albums You May Not Know…But Need To Own: Part Four

TomPiano2

20. Rashanim: Shalosh

Shalosh showcases Jon Madof’s infectious surf guitar attack, but also represents an ever-evolving compositional prowess. This effort boasts several acoustic guitar tracks that retain the intensity of the electric workouts. Madof finds an ideal balance between the traditional inspiration of his source material and the dexterous, even restless proficiency of his skill set: he is a player equally comfortable invoking the Temple or the mosh pit. The songs are serious and complex, polished to the extent that all potential excess is eliminated and each composition says precisely what it means to convey utilizing minimal time for maximum impact.

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? Thrash? All of the above: it’s definitely jazz and it is certainly imbued with a distinctively Jewish sensibility. Above all, it rocks.

rashanim

19. Bill Frisell: Where in the World?

Jazz? Avant-garde? Rock? All of the above? Certainly, and much more, as a matter of fact.

Bill Frissel is one of those virtuoso chameleons who seems comfortable (and effective) tackling any of these genres; often simultaneously.  Where in the World? will serve as a fortuitous find for anyone uninitiated in the sublime realm of Frissology.  This music is brooding, gothic, even melancholy at times.  He is doing with instruments (real instruments, played by real people) what just about every other group these days is lazily relying on technology to do for them:  creating mood.  Thus, where even the best pre-programmed work invariably sounds somewhat stiff and soulless, Frissel’s work here resonates with a dusty authenticity.

frisell

18. Matthew Shipp: Equilibrium

It was necessary to have at least one solid representation of contemporary jazz, and for me this was far and away one of the best releases of the last decade. More, for the purposes of this list, it illustrates that jazz is not boring music played by buttoned-up stiffs, or else frenetic jamming by self-absorbed experts. (Actually, does anyone actually think these things anymore? As outdated as these clichés are, the worse fate is that so many people don’t think of jazz at all these days.) Suffice it to say, Matthew Shipp makes modern music for modern times, but it is very much rooted in the tradition of America’s greatest invention.

Joined on this outing by the impeccable William Parker (bass) and Gerald Cleaver (drums), the wild card here is the one-two punch of old and new school: vibes by veteran Khan Jamal and programming by FLAM. As a result the recording at times invokes the Modern Jazz Quartet and at others modern electronica. The solo pieces recall Thelonious Monk and some of the experimental ones (with bowed bass by Parker and percussive interplay between Jamal and Cleaver, cut by FLAM’s wizardry) are like Pink Floyd paired up with Sun Ra. Yeah, it’s all that, and it’s intelligent, soulful and, at times, it swings like nobody’s business.

matthew shipp

17. John Davis: John Davis Plays Blind Tom, The Eighth Wonder

Who is Blind Tom? Who, for that matter, is John Davis? Davis is an American hero for doing his part to make people aware of a very obscure American treasure named Blind Tom Wiggins. Google that name and marvel at two things: one, that his story is true, and two, that a movie has not been made about him. This disc is, without question, one of the happiest discoveries I’ve made in the last ten years, and it’s been in heavy rotation ever since (also recommended: Davis playing the music of Blind Boone).

This solo piano music is reminiscent of its time (mid-to-late 1800s) and inevitably recalls everything from the Civil War to black-and-white photos, to slavery, to classical music (Chopin’s influence is prominent) and a period of American history that was at once simpler and more complicated (see: Civil War, slavery and the conditions that inspired these songs and ultimately devastated their creator). For eight bucks you can download this album and it might just be the best money you spend this year.

john davis

16. The Congos: Heart of the Congos

Released in 1977, Heart of the Congos is generally regarded as the greatest reggae album ever (certainly the best roots reggae album). It isn’t. It’s better. While it would be neither accurate nor fair to call this a one and done masterwork, it’s beyond dispute that the Congos never again came close to the heights they reached here. It’s okay, no one else has either.

The immortal Lee “Scratch” Perry’s production sounds like a remix already, providing a slightly disorienting tension between the push of straight ahead riddim and the pull of the echoing voices: Gregorian chants funneled through the heart of darkness into the light—a higher place, deeply spiritual yet entirely human. It is unlike anything you’ve ever heard, yet it’s somehow, impossibly, familiar.

congos

15. Vernon Reid: Mistaken Identity

Though best known for his work with Living Colour, Reid has been an indefatigable—and essential—presence in the avant-garde community, involved in projects ranging from jazz (the postmodern fusion of 1984’s Smash and Scatteration), electronic/illbient (the Yohimbe Brothers, with DJ Logic) and the crucial work he’s done under his own name (most recently, the easily recommended Other True Self from 2006, which features a remarkable interpretation of Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence”).

Reid was already a man amongst boys when Living Colour broke through in the late ‘80s, and he has never stopped absorbing and innovating, crafting a technique that is virtually all-encompassing. A recollection: when word broke that Living Colour, the band poised to be the best and most important collective of the ’90s, had called it quits, the only thing that softened the pain was the promise of some solo work.

A confession: Vernon Reid’s Mistaken Identity (’96) was so mind-bogglingly brilliant it made me grateful that Living Colour—one of my favorite bands—had broken up. If they had not, I thought, we may never have gotten this album. And it illustrates everything that makes Reid such an incomparable technician: he truly paints colors with sound, and is capable of creating a mood that you can’t quite describe, but remain—after countless listens—utterly enraptured by. If you are even the least bit adventurous and anxious to hear sounds you’ve never imagined, don’t miss out on this.

vernon reid

14. Painkiller: Execution Ground

There could, and perhaps should be multiple John Zorn albums on this list. (His ever-expanding soundtrack series, for instance, is an embarrassment of riches and, of course, his Masada catalog is essential.) Arguably the most accomplished and multi-faceted musician of his generation, Zorn wears more hats than a baseball stadium.

Along with drummer Mick Harris and bassist/producer Bill Laswell (who himself could have many albums on this list), Zorn uses his alto sax as a weapon: at once aggressively bashing the rhythm like relentless waves against a rock, or else crouching in the darkness, circling its prey (which is you). The second disc, an “ambient” mix, will make any electronica played in clubs sound like elevator Muzak. This music is beyond dark, almost disturbing in its ruthless tension, but capable of conjuring foreign images and sensations that slowly become familiar, and addictive.

painkiller

13. African Head Charge: Songs of Praise

African Head Charge is not easy, and it is not for everyone. For anyone who finds much of what they hear today underwhelming, give Songs of Praise a spin and listen to our weird, wonderful world with new ears. But what does it sound like? It sounds like anything and everything (or, to put it another way, it sounds like African Head Charge): funk-dub foundations with sticky rhythms and loops, sprinkled with sick samples that include animal cries, tribal chants, and shouts from both types of jungle—untamed and concrete.

The culmination of their discography to this point, Songs of Praise is a world music manifesto that spans the globe (literally) and provides a virtual blueprint for so many less triumphant imitations that would follow. It is, by turns, strange, surreal, celebratory, peaceful and provocative. Above all, it is absolutely unique, and suffused with an oddball integrity that makes it at once an artistic and cultural statement. What more can we reasonably ask from music?

african head charge

12. Prince Far I: Cry Tuff Dub Encounter Chapter 3

Michael James Williams, the man who was christened Prince Far I, is perhaps best known for the work that is considered to be his masterpiece, Under Heavy Manners. On this collaboration, massive credit here goes to the Roots Radics, featuring players who are well-loved in reggae circles but sadly obscure outside them: Flabba Holt (bass), Bingy Bunny (guitar) and Style Scott (drums). With crucial contributions to British musicians Stever Beresford (synths and melodica) and David Toop (flute) this is a mash-up of super-heavy dub and free-flowing semi-improvisation. The result is a swirling loop of ambient instrumental reggae that features female chanting and the occasional voice of thunder from Far I.

Perhaps more than any other album on this list, this is one you’ll play and find friends asking about. It’s almost impossible to ignore and it’s instantly addictive. This is music you’d expect to hear in a dorm room, at a house party, in a cool movie, and perhaps in your mind when you think “I wish there was some crazy laid back, utterly badass instrumental dub music without any overly slick production or computerized beats.” This is that music.

prince far i

11. Sonny Sharrock: Ask the Ages

I promised there would be almost no jazz on this list. I lied. And yet, in addition to being a crucial addition for all the right reasons, Ask the Ages is as uncategorizable—in a good way—as so much of the music mentioned throughout. Certainly it’s jazz, and features some true heavyweights from the golden era (Pharoah Sanders and Elvin Jones, both of whom played with John Coltrane), as well as younger legends-in-the-making Charnett Moffett (bass) and Bill Laswell (producer). But the star here is the perfectly-named guitar player Sonny Sharrock, who should be much better known—and perhaps would have been if not for his ridiculously premature death (at age 53, from a heart attack).

Sharrock (did I mention his name is perfect?) was known for his visceral, aggressive play, which, considering the reputations Sanders and Jones brought to the sessions, should prepare one for a sonic tsunami. Surprisingly, even refreshingly, it’s a decidedly contemplative (not to say restrained) affair, and Sharrock does some of the most expressive playing on a jazz album since Grant Green’s Blue Note years. Each musician is at the absolute height of his powers, and it’s difficult to think of an album that balances brawn and tenderness quite like this. Concluding on a note that, with hindsight is even more elegiac and devastating, “Once Upon a Time” remains a monumental closing statement.

sonny sharrock

List originally published at The Weeklings, 5/1/14 (check it out and make sure to explore the Spotify playlist that follows the article).

Share

The Story of My Life (Revisited)

Let me tell you a story.

Last week, Jason Herskowitz joined me for a Google Hangout, and we discussed the rapidly changing music industry. The issue at hand was whether streamed services are saviors or disruptors as they relate to the evolution of music in particular and content in general. In my opinion, they are a bit of both, but practically every innovation in each industry has been. Furthermore, I suspect history will look more favorably on these services than we might imagine today.

In my role as an analyst for CEA I’ve followed the developments of this shifting landscape with keen professional as well as personal interest. During the last decade advancements that, I maintain, benefit both artists and consumers, have all revolved around the democratization of content. What does that mean? In brief, it no longer requires archaic and expensive technologies and processes to make and acquire works of art.

As difficult as it might be for younger consumers to appreciate, the home audio business remained relatively uncomplicated for the better part of a century. The book publishing industry operated according to a fairly specific—and consistent—model for hundreds of years. Naturally the Internet came and changed everything. In the bad old days, gatekeepers held sway, overseeing the acquisition, creation and dissemination of content. These days, artists have the ability, and resulting channels, to create, distribute and promote their work.

Let me tell you my story.

I am old school enough to remember typewriters. More, I used them. More still, I took a class once that, in hindsight, was perhaps the most important—or at least most practical—one from my high school years. Flash forward through college (word processor), graduate school (a PC I could access only in a computer lab) to my first computer—a miracle with a printer that could produce dot matrix pages in sixty seconds, per page. Eventually I began writing for an online-only magazine, and finally created an obligatory blog. Then e-readers came along and eventually, tablets.

As an avid (if obsessive) reader and music aficionado, I have embraced each stage of progress as it relates to the ways content is made, purchased and utilized. These innovations have inexorably made it easier and more affordable to engage with our world; indeed they have opened up or created entirely new worlds. Throw in the marketing miracles inherent in social media and the people—not the self-appointed or well-connected tastemakers—are now the arbiters of what matters and what is relevant. This is a very good thing.

In my capacity as a music critic, I used to receive the occasional (now, more frequent) request from musicians, asking me to consider their work. Initially, they would offer to send a self-produced CD; these days they’ll lead me to their website, where sample files are accessible. To take one notable example, jazz guitarist Aram Bajakian contacted me a few years back, hoping I would listen to the album he had just made for John Zorn’s independent label Tzadik—haven for an ever-growing stable of talented but outside the so-called mainstream musicians. It turned out to be one of my favorite releases of the year. (Check out my review, HERE.)

This event, not unique, represented an epiphany of sorts. It occurred to me that Bajakian’s debut may never have had a fair chance ten or even five years ago. Of course, stories like this are becoming the new normal: despite what myopic naysayers stuck in the past insist, there is more incredible art being made today than most of us could hope to keep up with. As usual, the only ones lamenting these developments are the same sorts who always resist or stifle progress. These are the same folks who benefited, unfairly, from the rigged rules of the antiquated, imbalanced system.

Flash forward to 2013: I am releasing my first book this month, deciding, like so many musicians and, recently, writers, to go the independent route. Along the way, I’ve collected more rejection letters than I could count, but I’ve also seen the 20th century SOP steadily disappear as an unhappy memory. Today, just about anyone can publish a book, and a lot of people are trying. Does this potentially flood the market with inferior product? Certainly. Does it also ensure that more writers (and musicians, and movie makers) have the opportunity to be heard and discovered? Without doubt.

The good news: with sufficient ability, awareness and time, anyone can publish without paying for it or surviving the scrutiny of hit-seeking middlemen. The bad news: as liberating as this new DIY ethos is, the onus is now entirely on the artist. As such, I necessarily became acquainted with the nuts and bolts of creating a book, from legal pad to Amazon. Suffice it to say, this demands a proficiency at production, distribution and marketing.

The bottom line? This process represents the very essence of innovation, in actual practice. If you want it done, do it yourself. If you want it done well, understand and learn all the things you do not know. In halcyon times, writing a book was itself the hard part, and pretty much the only thing an author controlled. Too many authors had to hope that their publisher could generate sufficient interest, garner reviews, set up a book tour, etc. If that didn’t happen, there were few options other than luck or a miraculous endorsement from Oprah.

Today, even taking the independent route will cost you money (unless you happen to be a book designer, website builder and professional editor). On the other hand, it cost you money back in the day, as well: those advances given to authors were typically contingent upon future sales and the cost of assembly, editing and distribution were factored in on the front-end. I worked with the appropriate people, and worked on my game-plan with every spare second I could afford. Without a publisher or promoter I secured my own blurbs and booked my own reading events. As this book comes into the world, I have no one to answer to but myself. It’s beyond what I could have imagined, and just the way I would have imagined it, in some implausible future.

That future is real and it is now; in fact, milestones being made this moment will already be surpassed tomorrow. In the past I celebrated certain advancements from the sidelines, in solidarity. As I watch, and experience, the empowering mechanisms of innovation create previously unimaginable opportunities, I understand it’s now also the story of my life.

More about the memoir and how to acquire it, HERE.

Share

Beauty is a Rare Thing: Celebrating International Jazz Day (Revisited)

monk

All hope is not lost. At least enough people are still making –and listening to– jazz that we can even attempt to initiate what hopefully becomes an ongoing occasion.

In a piece celebrating one of my heroes, Eric Dolphy, I made an honest attempt to address what jazz music means to me and why I consider it an obligation to share this passion (full piece here):

I know that jazz music has made my life approximately a million times more satisfying and enriching than it would have been had I never been fortunate enough to discover, study and savor it.

During the last 4-5 years, I’ve had (or taken) the opportunity to write in some detail about, to name a relative handful, Freddie Hubbard, Wayne Shorter, McCoy Tyner, John Zorn, Henry Threadgill and Herbie Hancock. This has been important to me, because I feel that in some small way, if I can help other people better appreciate, or discover any (or all) of these artists, I will be sharing something bigger and better than anything I alone am capable of creating.

Before this blog (and PopMatters, where virtually all of my music writing appears), and during the decade or so that stretched from my mid-’20s to mid-’30s, I used to have more of an evangelical vibe. It’s not necessarily that I’m less invested, now, then I was then; quite the contrary. But, if I wasn’t particuarly interested in converting people then (I wasn’t), I’m even less so today. When it comes to art in general and music in particular, entirely too many people are very American in their tastes: they know what they like and they like what they know. And there’s nothing wrong with that, since what they don’t know won’t hurt them. Also, let’s face it, the only thing possibly more annoying than some yahoo proselytizing their religion on your doorstep is some jackass getting in your grill about how evolved or enviable his or her musical tastes happen to be. Life is way too short, for all involved.

I have, in short, done my best to provide context and articulate why some of us continue to worship at this altar of organic American music. Naturally that discussion has included Miles, Mingus, Monk. And of course, Coltrane. With any honest discussion of jazz we can quickly get dragged into an abyss of snobbishness (however unintentional), trivial footnoting and the self-sabotaging desire (however well-intended) to include all the key characters. So for the novice, it’s not necessary to begin at the very beginning. Indeed, it might be advised to get a taste of Coltrane, who is at once accessible and imperative. Here’s my .02:

For those whose definition of genius is either too encompassing or excessively narrow, John Coltrane poses no problems: there isn’t anyone who knows anything about music (in general) and jazz (in particular) who would contest that he is among the most prominent, impressive and influential artists to ever master an instrument. Furthermore, to put Coltrane and his unsurpassed proficiency in its simplest perspective, it might be suggested that no one has ever done anything as well as Coltrane played the saxophone.

Plus, he was an exceptionally gifted composer and bandleader and, by all accounts, he was a generous and gentle human being, as well. All of which is to say, if there is anyone worthy of celebration in our contemporary American Idol Apocalypse, Coltrane should serve as both antidote and inspiration.

Entire piece here. Also, this:

The title of this post comes courtesy of the brilliant Ornette Coleman (speaking of misunderstood geniuses; to call him an iconoclast is like calling Marine Boy a good swimmer). More on him here and a crucial preview of the shape of jazz that came, below:

Jazz is not only fun to listen to (duh), it’s fun to analyze and obsess over. For instance, a short treatise on some of the more sublime sax solos can be found here. A case is made for the best jazz outfit ever assembled, here.

And a loving ode to contemporary jazz (for all the haters who won’t acknowledge it and the uninitiated who are entirely unaware of it). A taste:

What happened next is, again depending on one’s perspective, the languid death march of America’s music or a continuation of an art that seamlessly integrates virtually every noise and culture from around the globe. A certain, and predictable, cadre of critics submerged their heads in the sand and bitched about better days. The awake and aware folks who make and receive these offerings celebrate an ever-evolving music that resists boundaries and is capable of communication transcending language and explanation. At its best it is an ideal synergy of expression and integrity.

Anyone who knows anything understands that some of the best jazz music ever was created in the ’70s (no, really) and a great deal of amazing music was made in the ’80s (seriously). But in the ’90s and into the ’00s we’ve seen jazz music consistently –and successfully– embrace other forms of music (rock, rap, electronica, etc.) and end up somewhere that remains jazz, yet something else altogether. There are myriad examples, of course, but this small sampler of five selections might be illustrative, and enlightening. The uninitiated may be surprised, even astonished, at how alive and accessible this “other” music really is.

One could (and should) say more about artists such as Lester Bowie, Jamie Saft, Marco Benevento, The Bad Plus, Critters Buggin, Garage a Trois and Mostly Other People Do The Killing, all of whom have incorporated our (increasingly) info-overload existence into their sound. Slack-jawed and stale-souled haters may demur at even calling this Jazz, or course. And of course the last laugh is on them because most of these musicians would care less than a little what you call it. They understand that the shape of jazz that came is always turning into what we’ll be listening to tomorrow.

The entire thing, with some very tasty audio samples, here.

For now, this (which does more to convey the ecstasy of improvisation and community, not to mention solidarity and soul, than a billion blog posts ever could):

In the end, jazz is always about now and the wonderful possibilities of tomorrow, but it also achieves what the best music of any genre does, and brings us back, always, to the beginning.

To be continued…

Share

One More Blue Nightmare: Aram Bajakian’s Back Again (with the album of the year)

aram-bajakian-2014-650x400

What has Aram Bajakian been up to since the release of his remarkable debut, Kef, in 2011?

Not much. He’s been on the road with both Lou Reed (RIP) and Diana Krall. Let me repeat that: he has played guitar with both Lou Reed and Diana Krall. Quick, how many musicians do you know who are versatile enough to pull that off? It speaks volumes to hear Sweet Lou introduce Bajakian as “guitarist extraordinaire” in of the many, highly recommended clips available on YouTube.

Bajakian has also managed to write and record another set of original compositions, and the results are stunning. Considering the depth and originality on display in Kef (which is an Armenian type of dance music known for incorporating traditional and western instruments), it is at once remarkable and refreshing that Bajakian has recorded a cycle that manages to be more direct and accessible, yet expansive in terms of style and effect.

The year is young but there were flowers also in hell will be on my list come December; the only question is whether anyone else will take top billing.

ab1

For guitar nerds, this is an album that can—and should—be appreciated and savored for the multiple nuances that exist within practically each number. Bajakian indulges in his love of pedals and pyrotechnics, but the music is never indulgent. An obvious example is the tribute to his former employer, “LouTone”: it is a suitably fuzzed-out affair, ambling along with just the right attitude, but in the middle Bajakian breaks it down with some echoed distortion that is a tip of the cap and a passing of the torch. Moments like this will make music aficionados smile and nod the way a baseball fan can understand, without the announcer, the ways a pitcher paints the corner with his fastball.

And Bajakian brings the heat. He blasts out of the gate with the scorching “Texas Cannonball”, a tribute to the great Freddie King. In addition to being a suitably blistering opening salvo, it serves notice that this young man knows his history, and more, is capable of delivering convincing celebrations for the types of guitar heroes video game players have never heard about. And, as sensitive and subtle as his playing often is, he can absolutely kill when he wants to. Another tribute, “Orbisonian”, balances a punkish aggression with a winking rockabilly flair. This song should be featured in a video game.

In the liner notes Bajakian thanks his uncle for helping initiate a love affair with the blues that continues to this day. “Sweet Blue Eyes” is a worthy tribute to the idiom, taking Stevie Ray Vaughan on a late night cab ride to the East Village. “Rent Party”, which showcases the solid support offered by Shahzad Ismaily (bass) and Jerome Jennings (drums), is so full of glorious filth you”ll need fresh Q-tips after each listen. Yet, even on these hard-charging numbers, Bajakian can’t help enhancing things with multi-tracked embellishment: the middle section of “Rent Party” is an exercise in well-calibrated chaos. “Labor on 57th” lets the intensity build like an electrical storm, all menacingly gorgeous heat lightning, alternating between explosive release and retreat: it is a history of the hustle-bustle of our city that never sleeps.

The aforementioned “LouTone” and “The Kids Don’t Want to Sleep” are showcases for the huge, varied sounds Bajakian can conjure, unfiltered enough so they are fresh and raw, but shrewdly restrained enough to avoid noise-for-noise’s sake extravagance. Bajakian, in short, uses skill and instinct to assault your system, where so many other players simply turn up the volume.

It is, ultimately, the quieter numbers that fully reveal the mastery Bajakian is developing. Album closer “For Julia” is a soulful tone poem that uses a less-is-more understatement to concentrate feeling, where “Japanese Love Ballad” would not sound remotely out of place on one of John Zorn’s more exotic Filmworks studies.

Two tracks in particular elevate the proceedings and will stay with the listener for a long time. “Requiem for 5 Pointz” is a solemn shout-out to the “graffiti mecca” in Queens that was whitewashed this fall. In terms of subject matter and delivery, Bajakian is not simply cementing street cred for this city he loves; he is solidifying a distinctive imprint as a son of the cultural and musical capital of the world. “Medicaid Lullaby”, another political commentary that needs no words to make its case, offers majestic evidence of Bajakian’s uncorrupted heart. While he is often, and flatteringly, compared to Marc Ribot, this album in general, and this track in particular, conjures up the man who balances light and dark, heavy and soft, intellect and adrenaline better than just about anyone: Robert Fripp. One also thinks of Vernon Reid, another indefatigable explorer who distills his countless loves and influences into a vision that is brazen and uninterested in compromise.

None of this is to suggest there were flowers also in hell is a mere amalgamation of various, albeit disparate source materials; rather, it is a testament of Bajakian’s love affair with his instrument. The inspirations he has absorbed infuse practically every second of this recording, but the sum total is anything but reductive. This album contains multitudes, and they are original as they are exhilarating.

This is not jazz, nor is it necessarily rock or blues; it’s a reflection of the mind and soul of the man who made it, like all great art must be. As such, it is also a reflection of the frenzied times we live in: the turmoil, apathy and information overload, yet it prevails as an antidote for the very urgencies it addresses. The best instrumental albums are always soundtracks. They are soundtracks to the worlds they create, and his second album is the soundtrack of Aram Bajakian’s world, right now. We are witnessing the evolution of a significant talent, and we should anticipate important work from him for many years.

Share

The Intersection of Art & Innovation, cont’d: Another Conversation with Aram Bajakian

aram murph

Today we wrapped round two of what I hope will be an ongoing conversation.

Aram and I discussed what he’s learned by producing, and promoting, his first truly independent release (there were flowers also in hell and yes, a review is forthcoming. Spoiler: it’s a positive review).

Once again, we talked about social media as a necessary ingredient and/or evil for any contemporary artist. We also appraised all-things digital and how the ubiquity of content can be a blessing and curse, sometimes both at the same time.

Check it out, below.

Here is the overview (and video) from our conversation in November.

It was my pleasure to speak with Aram Bajakian, a brilliant guitarist who has toured with both Lou Reed and Diana Krall. Aram released his debut, Kef, in 2011, and my review is below. His follow-up, This Man Refused To Open His Eyes, is dropping in February 2014, and we talk about his decision to go it alone and handle all aspects of its creation, marketing and distribution. As the series has already revealed, this is steadily becoming the “new normal”, and Aram makes a compelling case that, for musicians, the DIY strategy is less a last resort and, increasingly, a viable and very empowering option.

Check him out online at http://arambajakian.com/. You can see a video preview of this new release, and if you purchase it now, you’ll get a special edition with two bonus tracks!

Check out our conversation, below, and my review of Kef (which you should acquire, immediately), below that.

Aram Bajakian’s Fractured Folk Tales (11/2011)

You need to spend some time with this music. Fortunately, you will want to spend time with it. There are at least two excellent reasons for this: one, you will need to allow it ample opportunity to work its magic; two, you will need sufficient time to formulate an appropriate response for your friends when they inquire about what you’re listening to these days. An album called Kef you will say. What? By a guy named Aram Bajakian. Who? Bajakian is a Brooklyn guitarist whose debut, Kef has just been released by John Zorn’s Tzadik label. (Mentioning Tzadik should immediately clear up any questions about quality or street cred. It should also indicate that, like everything else from Tzadik, this material will be unique and ambitious, if not immediately accessible.)

For folks who have not heard of Zorn or Tzadik, the label – now well over a decade old – has helped discover and promote music that falls far outside the so-called mainstream. While Zorn’s influential quartet, Masada, can easily be described as jazz (and lazily described as Ornette Coleman meets Klezmer), much of the work Zorn and those recording on his label do is difficult to categorize. Naturally, this is a very good thing: this is music not different for the sake of being difficult or outré; rather, it is ambitious in scope and very outward looking. As such, it’s not uncommon to hear the never-passé stylings of bebop alongside classical and world music (speaking of lazy and inadequate descriptions … ), often in the same composition. Simply put, Tzadik represents the essence of avant-garde, adventurous and averse to convention. It also serves as a reminder for anyone bored or seeking reassurance, that there are (many) smaller labels releasing inspired music it would take a lifetime to listen to.

Kef is named for an Armenian type of dance music known for incorporating traditional and western instruments. In other words, the sort of thing ideally suited for Tzadik. Bajakian is joined by Tom Swafford on violin and Shanir Blumenkranz on bass. The absence of drums is novel and audacious, but considering how much some of this material shreds, it is almost revelatory. Blumenkranz is quickly bolstering his own legendary credentials, having already appeared on more than two dozen Tzadik releases.

From the first note, the traditional, non-Western influence is obvious, but, by the second track, the jazz and rock sensibility is front and center. There is an aggressive, almost punkish vibe that also will sound familiar to fans of the Tzadik label. The guitar playing on Kef inevitably calls to mind his label-mates Jon Madof and especially Yoshie Fruchter (who employs the violin in his quartet Pitom) but more than anyone, his runs, at turns angular, muscular and – when necessary – brutal, recall Marc Ribot. This is intended as the highest form of praise.

Kef will remind listeners of Madof’s quartet Rashanim in part because both guitarists are brilliant but also boast the considerable prowess of Blumenkranz. Kef will also draw favourable comparison to Pitom because of the violin (and again, the indefatigable Blumenkranz), as well as the energy that pivots between punk and hardcore, if only for seconds at a time. Bajakian is quite obviously a product of his culture and times, and he is able to infuse each song with a variety of cultural signposts and points of departure. The fifth track, “Wroclaw”, breezes along like an Armenian folk song, albeit one played in dark nightclub or a sweltering New York subway. This is postmodern chamber jazz that swings proficiently with an always-apparent and quite convincing Eastern vibe: fractured folk tales, if you like.

There are softer, subtle moments, like the acoustic opener “Pear Tree” or the gorgeous “Pineta”. There are some scorchers, like “Sepastia” and “Raki”, both of which showcase the band’s agility. It is during the more intense moments where the absence of a drummer is most noticeable—and impressive. The lack of grounding and punctuation would leave a less capable ensemble without the necessary punch and bottom; Bajakian’s band uses the extra space as an opening for interaction, and each musician takes turns steering the ship and soaring above the surface. There is a distinct structure unifying each song, and while the collection coalesces to a logical flow, each tune could be isolated and examined. After several listens you might even find yourself humming some of these melodies (does anyone hum anymore?).

There are no unsatisfactory tracks to be found here, and while some may dazzle or impress more than others, the last two, “48 Days” and “La Rota”, warrant special mention. Alternately serene and sombre, these closing statements comprise an elegiac, deeply moving conclusion. There is beautiful music and there is moving music (the best, of course, can combine the two), and then there is music that goes to that other place which is at once inscrutable and oddly familiar. By the time the last notes have been played it will occur to the tuned-in listener that something significant is happening here. This is a different type of music.

Music remains the ultimate antidote against cynicism and apathy: all it asks is you lend it your ears and in return you may just get something that makes the world more beautiful than you thought possible. If that sentiment is, understandably, a bit much to process with a straight face, let it suffice to say Kef is as extraordinary an album as I can recall listening to in a very long time.

http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/148645-aram-bajakian-aram-bajakians-kef/

Share

Whispered Words*

LB-300x200

How long will it take? I did not ask, because I wanted to make every second count. It would be over quickly enough; it was already happening entirely too soon.

It’s okay, I said as I held my dog, flanked by friends and the friendly technicians who split their time between extending or improving lives and facilitating peaceful endings.

“He won’t feel any pain,” they assured me, and I knew it was the truth since this was not the first time I had found myself in this situation. Another dog, another occasion, and the excruciating decision to restrict pain by hastening death. Another time, at a place all dogs hate to go, perhaps because some part of them suspects that someday the person standing over them at the examination table will be the same one who administers that final injection.

I had already watched another small dog slowly go to sleep, just like they said he would. Barely moving when we carried him in, he snarled once the doctor reached for him: an instinctive gesture or perhaps a final, indignant affirmation (I am still alive!) and, as we covered him with kisses and kind words, the calm, considerate doctor reminded us that there would be no pain; it would, in fact, be quite pleasant. This stuff, he said, putting the needle down, would make our dog –could, in fact, make any of us– feel better than we’d ever felt, that this stuff was illegal, and expensive, on the streets.

Another day, different doctor, same drill. My dog’s heart was failing him. It was supposed to be a sluggish, gradual decline; the type you can sluggishly, gradually prepare for. But something had happened (I seem to recall words like torn and internal and bleeding) and my dog could scarcely breathe on his own when I brought him in. Seeing him, panting heavily and near panic in his tiny, oxygenated crate was the second-most pitiful sight I’ve ever endured. I left the room so they could give me the diagnosis: it was dire and I had minutes, not hours, to make a decision. The moment my dog saw me as I rushed back into the room that default setting took over and all my own concerns evaporated.

(Stay strong, I did not need to tell myself, because I had been here before. I had looked down, yet another time, at another pair of eyes: impossibly lucid and beseeching, charging me to make sense of, or at least assuage, a kind of suffering that cannot be conveyed with words.

And once again I heard that reassuring phrase, or well-meaning mantra, that somehow articulated every hope, fear and aspiration a moment like this can contain. It will be okay, I said, smiling down at those eyes. Eyes I had looked into too many times to count, eyes that told me more about myself than anyone would believe, eyes that, until this moment, I could not imagine never being able to look at again.)

Okay.

It gets very quiet while time and place and the guarded feelings that enable us to function all fall away and you concentrate every thought into one simple, implausible objective: peace. You think it and you will it and for a moment that might be forever you become it in ways you’re never able to talk about later, even if you are inclined (and you aren’t, especially). You shiver but are calm; you are entirely in the present tense yet you are also somewhere else, somewhere deeper inside that, somehow, connects you to everything else you’ve ever known.

It will be okay, you whisper, actually believing this because it is not even your own voice you hear. You don’t know if this is you, or your mind, or the actualization of that other place (you are hazily aware) you have managed to access, understanding it is not anything you can anticipate or comprehend even though you have been preparing for it (you realize, abruptly) your entire life.

It’s okay, you say, and maybe your vision is blurred or your eyes are closed, or probably you are seeing more clearly than ever before, but now you recognize this voice and, as you look down at eyes that can no longer see you, understand, finally, that you are talking to yourself.

*Excerpted from the memoir Please Talk About Me When I’m Gone

Share

Jon Madof and Zion80 Are Making World Music for a New World

feature-music-jonmaddof-zion80-650

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.

cover art

This outfit, the latest project from guitar mastermind Jon Madof, is described as “Shlomo Carlebach meets Fela Kuti.” Let’s break it down: Carlebach and Kuti are titans of 20th Century music, that is culturally as well as artistic icons. Carlebach was a beloved American rabbi, composer and singer. Kuti was a Nigerian visionary, social activist and the architect of Afrobeat.

Zion80 serves as a tribute to these musicians and a forward-looking project seamlessly merging two disparate sensibilities for a new millennium. Indeed, the band’s moniker is a playful nod to the name of Kuti’s epic band Egypt80. The formula is at once straightforward and audacious: taking traditional melodies and tossing them into a cauldron of multi-horned and percussion-laden Afrobeat: the result is rollicking fun, with intelligence and soul to spare.

 

It’s instructive to see this in a live setting to appreciate and provide proper context. The arrangements are clever and inspired, but there’s sufficient room for the players to interact and improvise. Taking cues both from sheet music and Madof’s prompts, the tunes, which are tighter and shorter on the CD, get to stretch out and catch fire. This is not to suggest the recorded material is sterile or unexciting; in fact, it’s stunning: a near-perfect blend of precision and blissful abandon.

Anyone familiar with Kuti, or early ‘70s James Brown, or even newer collectives like Budos Band or Antibalas, will have an immediate point of reference. Zion80 features two drummers, loads of percussion, a triple-sax assault (two baritone, one tenor), trumpet, keyboards and three (!) guitars. Considering the assembled players are all proficient jazz musicians, what might be daunting or overwhelming is expertly presented, for maximum enjoyment.

 

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.

My conversation with Madof after his gig was insightful but too short. He was kind enough to elaborate on his process and discuss what inspired Zion80 (in particular) and his musical vision, in general.

Zion80 is an ambitious project with many moving parts. While obviously an ideal gateway for discovery and improvisation, an undertaking like this must be a labor of love?

Yes, definitely! I hope that any music I do would be a labor of love. Obviously, there are organizational and financial aspects to it. But for me, if it doesn’t come from a place of love and excitement for the music, it’s not really worth it.

Zion80 is a lot of work logistically because there are so many people. Sometimes it’s dozens of emails and phone calls just to get everything together for one performance. But the reward is that we all get to be on stage, making music together.

To even contemplate a project like this, one assumes the listener is familiar with either Shlomo Carlebach and/or Fela Kuti (preferably both). The reality is, many listeners may have heard of neither. More, they may not have heard of Rashanim, or have any familiarity with jazz.

 

Do you feel (as I do) that the backgrounds of both sources are useful and add considerable context and flavor, but ultimately are not imperative? (Put plainly: this is music one can “get” and enjoy without knowing the back catalogs of Carlebach and Kuti!)

I agree completely. All music exists in a context, has specific references and is made by people who all have their own pasts and stories. But on the most fundamental level, music is simply a form of communication from one human being to another. And I don’t think there’s any ‘need’ for a listener to do anything other than to listen. Of course, if someone understands Zion80’s references, that’s great. But there are no prerequisites.

The best example of this is the way small children respond to music. I have three young kids, and they all responded to music way before they could walk or talk. I could put on the Beatles, John Zorn, Led Zeppelin or Fela, and they’d love it. And they didn’t care in the least what country the musician was from, when the CD was recorded, or what language was being spoken.

When did you first encounter Carlebach?

I first heard Carlebach’s music before I even knew it was his music. After my wife and I got married in 2001, we began getting more involved with Jewish observance. That included going to Shabbat services, meals, holiday celebrations and other events. Invariably, there would be singing and dancing at these events. And more often than not, the tunes we were singing and dancing to were Carlebach’s. His music spread very rapidly throughout the Jewish world and has become the standard in many communities.

It wasn’t until a year or two later when a friend asked me if I played any of Carlebach’s tunes with my band. But I didn’t even know his name! When I responded that I didn’t know who Carlebach was, my friend simply said, ‘sure you do.’ He sang me a few of the familiar melodies, and I was surprised not only to learn that they were all written by one person, but that this person had lived so recently (he passed away in 1994). So I never had the privilege of meeting him in person, but his music has had a tremendous impact on me.

And Kuti?

Fela is one of those musicians who was hugely important and influential but is not a household name in as wide a way as he really should be. My wife and I went to visit friends in upstate New York, and when my friend mentioned ‘Fela’ in passing, I asked who he was referring to. Once he regained his composure after finding out that I did not, indeed, know who Fela Kuti was, he made me promise to go out to the record store with him the next day (back when they had record stores!). We did, I got ‘The Best Best of Fela Kuti’ and the rest, as they say, is history. I was hooked!

 

How and when did it occur to you that two such prolific, beloved (and not uncontroversial) artists could, indeed should, be combined?

It actually happened spontaneously. One day (which happened to be a Friday), I was working at home and listening to Fela a lot. The kind of listening where you can’t get enough and you’re just swimming in the music!

The next day was Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath (aka Shabbat). I was getting ready to take my kids to synagogue and started humming a tune that we sing on Shabbat, which happened to be a tune written by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. The rhythm of Fela’s music was stuck in my head, and the melody I was humming got mixed in with it. I literally jumped up and started imagining what other Carlebach songs would sound like with an Afrobeat treatment.

Since observant Jews don’t use electronic devices on Shabbat, I waited until Saturday night to go on my iPad to see if anyone had made this mixture before. When a Google search didn’t turn anything up, I knew that I had to do it!

Was it challenging to assemble this band?

It’s funny, but as soon as I started thinking about the music, I knew the people I wanted to get in the band. I had tried some large ensemble ideas with a short-lived group called CircuitBreaker several years ago, and many of those musicians were the ones I called for Zion80. Some of the members of Zion80 are musicians I’ve been playing with for over ten  years since I moved to New York.

Others are ones I’ve wanted to play with but didn’t have the opportunity. And others are players I’ve met more recently. But in the case of each player, I selected them based on their personalities, what I thought they would bring to the music.

What is it like leading a larger band? (Compared, say, to Rashanim?)

It’s nuts! My guitarist Aram Bajakian recently remarked that it must be a ‘logistical nightmare’ to get anything together with this band. In a way he’s right, but it’s also so great when everything comes together and we have everybody in one studio or on one stage, ready to give everything we have to the music. A lot of the musicians have very busy touring schedules, so that makes it even more exciting when we can all be together.

 

Tell us about your CD-release residency at The Stone.

The Stone is hands down one of the best places to make music. It was created by John Zorn to be a space dedicated to musicians presenting their work without distraction from anything else (drinking, noise, etc.). It’s a place where music is deeply respected and concerts there are attended by people who truly understand this.

So it made it all the more special to kick Zion80 off at The Stone, because we were working up to doing a record on Tzadik (Zorn’s label). We played every Monday night in June, July and August of 2012. Each night, we did a rehearsal open to the public, and then a set of music. This workshop environment put the material and my band-leading on the treadmill in a huge way! It was a tremendous workout going through everything week after week. I think it brought the music to a level that could have otherwise taken a few years to develop.

We then played several other gigs during the fall and winter of 2012, and went into the studio in late December. In April 2013, we did our CD release there in a week of concerts. So we were able to go back to the place where the music was created and focus on bringing it to the next, post-recording level.

Simply put, The Stone was an invaluable, essential part of the development of Zion80.

How has it been performing this material live? (Or, the difference between laying down the tracks in the studio vs. playing live?)

That’s a great question. Each band has its own life cycle, and the more I make music, the more I know that you have to let that life cycle evolve in the way it needs to evolve.

I originally thought of Zion80 as a band that would perform the songs in radically different ways from performance to performance. But over time it became obvious that the songs had specific arrangements that worked well. So we solidified those arrangements for the recording.

Now, when we go back on stage to perform the music, we have a set structure to work within. Paradoxically, that opens up a lot of possibilities for the music to go in many different directions, because we’ve internalized the structure of the songs and have those structures as solid reference points.

The night I saw you, which was, I believe, the last set of the week for Zion80, you took away the sheet music. Tell us about that, and what that does to liberate the players and the performance.

Liberate is absolutely the right word. I’ve had a love/hate relationship with reading music on stage. In my trio (Rashanim), I’ve always had the music in front of me, even though I know almost all of it without having to look at the scores. Over time, that’s felt very limiting, kind of like a security blanket you can’t let go of.

When I took the music away from the players that night, I initially felt a bit afraid that we would have a massive musical train wreck right there on stage! But once we started, we all felt a heightened sense of freedom, and that was a great set of music. So I think if the music is really needed, then I’ll keep it on stage. Once it’s internalized, it needs to go!

I know your heritage and faith are extremely important to you. Can you expand on the intersection of your culture and your art?

For me, the underlying narrative of Zion80 is very much about the interplay between universal humanity and cultural particularism. Both Fela and Carlebach understood deeply that the truest connection to all of humanity can often be found through the individual’s roots in their own culture, religion, etc. This is counter to the popular conception that universality and particularism are mutually exclusive; I completely disagree with that idea.

Of course, there are a lot of potential pitfalls if the interplay between these two forces gets out of balance. But from my perspective, a rejection of either particularism or universality is a tragic mistake.

This idea plays heavily into the intersection of my culture and art. Simply put, I’m an observant Jew trying to extend both my roots and my branches. My roots go back to the traditions, beliefs and culture of my ancestors, and my own branches as a musician go in many directions, including to Fela.

Are there any inherent (or imposed) limitations, navigating your life as a musician and man of deep faith?

There are certainly some logistical limitations to this navigation. The major ones are the prohibitions on working, traveling, etc. on the Jewish Sabbath and holidays. Since the Sabbath goes from Friday night at sundown to Saturday night an hour after sundown, that rules out playing Friday night gigs and many Saturday night gigs!

There are also the limitations of keeping kosher and making sure that there’s food I can eat wherever I am. In New York this is very easy, but traveling to other countries often involves making arrangements to get food.

But for all of the limitations, there’s the other side of being rooted in tradition, and the opportunities that this provides. For example, this past summer, Zion80 was in Austria at the Saalfelden Festival. We were there over Shabbat before our concert late Saturday night. Since we don’t drive or use public transportation on Shabbat, we took a long walk through the town and had an amazing time. Once Shabbat was over, we got all of our equipment together and did the show.

Without my interest in and connection to Jewish culture, identity and spirituality, Zion80 would never have happened. It’s completely rooted in those ideas, while simultaneously reaching out in other directions, including to Fela’s music. So there may of course, be limitations that I work within as an observant Jew, but it’s all part of the bigger picture of trying to be grounded as a human being and making my music from that place.

What are some of your most profound influences (musically and otherwise)?

One of my biggest influences, both personally and musically, is John Zorn. I started listening to his band, Naked City, in high school. The Masada project started when I was in college, and from the first time hearing that, I was hooked. I got my hands on every recording of his I could, and for the next several years totally immersed myself in his work.

So it’s really been an amazing experience to get to know him, work with him, perform his music, etc. Everything about the way he works, from composing to choosing musicians to recording to releasing records, it’s all been a tremendous lesson and inspiration for me.

Other important musical influences over the years include Led Zeppelin, Fugazi, Ornette Coleman, Jim Hall, Wes Montgomery, Marc Ribot, Jimi Hendrix, Thomas Chapin, Radiohead, Mario Pavone, Marty Ehrlich, Miles Davis and Tortoise.

Tzadik has been so successful in cultivating a roster of diverse, challenging players. Where does Zion80 fit into this spectrum?

There really is a diverse group of musicians on Tzadik. People may think of it as mainly being connected to the Radical Jewish Culture movement, but there’s a lot more to the label, including the series of Japanese music, film scores, female artists, re-releases, etc. I feel like Zion80 is part of a second generation of musicians exploring the ideas of Radical Jewish Culture. That generation also includes my trio Rashanim along with lots of other bands like Yoshie Fruchter’s Pitom, Eyal Maoz’ Edom, the French bands AutorYno and Zakarya, Pharaoh’s Daughter and others.

To me, Radical Jewish Culture is really about taking influences from the past and creating something new. Of course, we’re dealing on some level with Jewish ideas, music, iconography, etc. but that melding of old and new, traditional and avant-garde, ‘inside’ and ‘outside,’ that’s really what it’s all about. And I hope that Zion80 fits right in with that.

We happen to be taking the music of Fela and Carlebach and mixing it with the flavor of the ‘Downtown’ scene, but it could be klezmer, cantorial music, Ladino songs, or Burt Bacharach taken in a new and exciting direction. To me, that’s all Radical Jewish Culture.

http://www.popmatters.com/feature/175868-jon-madof-making-world-music-for-a-new-world/P0/

Share