5. New Zion Trio, Fight Against Babylon.
The full review is here.
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.
What Saft manages to do on Fight Against Babylon is create an organic ambiance and, without any in-the-studio sorcery or clever manipulation (strategies he has already showcased on the aforementioned efforts), establish a deep, utterly pleasant groove. On the tracks “Ishense” and “Lost Dub”, the beat quickens and becomes ever-so-slightly urgent, upping the ante for Saft’s keyboard perambulations. This is closer to free-jazz territory, but welcoming as opposed to forbidding (a kinder Cecil Taylor meets a gentler Mad Professor?). Once Saft plugs in the Fender Rhodes the album moves into another gear, shifting from pleasantly intriguing to genuinely engrossing. Sweet and smooth, standout track “Hear I Jah” invokes the grandeur of Herbie Hancock and the tune is a mind-boggling mash-up, sort of Mwandishi matched up with Sly and Robbie. Closing track “Fire Blaze” slows things down to a hypnotic crawl, and Saft’s playing invokes 19th Century classical more than Studio One: it’s like Chopin with a spliff.
Jamie Saft, capable of seemingly anything, shrewdly utilizes a less-is-more approach to create a music that no one else could have conceived. He boasts the full range of his influences and ability, conjuring up sounds and feelings from multiple genres. The results are strikingly original and may inspire you to dig up some dub classics from your closet, or listen to contemporary jazz with reawakened ears. They should also remind you that while Saft has never before done anything quite like this, Fight Against Babylon is an obvious and welcome continuation of the distinctive and unclassifiable work he has been doing for well over a decade.
You know you want it. Get hold of it here.
4. Pitom, Blasphemy and Other Serious Crimes.
I was unprepared for Pitom. As a result, my initial experience with the band’s debut album in 2008 was one of those exceedingly rare occasions when one’s astonishment is both genuine and pleasant. I remain in awe of the work. It seemed—and still seems—almost impossible that a group of young musicians could create compositions this intense, vibrant and convincing. Practically from start to finish, that first album delivers at a high level and, like the best music, provides rewards and delights with each listen.
Pitom’s sophomore effort is entitled Blasphemy and Other Serious Crimes. If that sounds a bit heavy, consider that the album is an attempt to grapple, in musical terms, with Yom Kippur (the Jewish day of repentance). Fruchter is an observant Jew, which makes the subject matter and the tone of the proceedings easier to understand. He also has described Pitom’s music as “punkassjewjazz” which should give you an idea of how serious he is about not taking himself too seriously.
It is obvious that Fruchter is very much a student of all musical genres, so the shifting styles are never abrupt or distracting; indeed, the never-static dynamic gives the songs a restless edge. The guitar, already heavy on the first album, is heavier and a bit darker this time out. There are discernible elements that favorably recall both Mogwai’s purposeful crunch and Joe Satriani’s pyrotechnic shred-fests. Drummer Kevin Zubek and bassist Shanir Blumenkranz are at once a steadying force and the engine that keeps things moving forward and, occasionally, sideways. Violinist Jeremy Brown is much more than an accompaniment for the electric guitar; his playing is both raw and refined, sometimes on the same song. As dominant as the guitar sounds throughout, Brown is constantly embellishing and augmenting. Check them out live here. On songs like “A Crisis Of Faith” he is out in front, while the guitar darts and weaves around the melody. Those roles are somewhat reversed on the frenetic “Head In The Ground”. 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.
Full review here.
3. Aram Bajakian: Aram Bajakian’s Kef
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.)
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.
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.
Full review here.