Schizophonia: Cantorial Recordings Reimagined

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There is a common theme that connects Yoshie Fruchter with his occasional partners in crime Jon Madof and Aram Bajakian: They all play guitars. More, they have all recorded on John Zorn’s Tzadik label, establishing themselves as vital contributors to the NYC downtown music scene. Perhaps most important, all three share a keen appreciation and knowledge of history: Employing their spiritual heritages and a profound appreciation for culture(s), these men refine the art of making the Old into the New.

Yoshie Fruchter has demonstrated over the last decade that he’s a musician and composer to take seriously, and enjoy. His band Pitom’s first two releases, Pitom (2008) and Blasphemy and Other Serious Crimes (2011) are splendid explorations of traditional Jewish music sandblasted with jazz, rock and metal. His presence—in concert and on record—in Jon Madof’s Zion 80 brings a muscular yet intelligent frenzy to the proceedings.

His latest project, an obvious labor of love, uses Jewish cantorial recordings as a source of extraordinary musical dialogue. Fruchter describes the undertaking as “an exploration of cantorial music found on 20th century recordings and re-imagined through a contemporary lens”. That Fruchter has the knowledge of this material—much less the inclination to reinterpret it in his own weird, wonderful way—should underscore the seriousness, and passion, imbuing these reworked arrangements.

The results are, unsurprisingly, spectacular. This effort can be considered a kindred spirit to the alternately dark and ebullient music Fruchter has already made, but Schizophonia takes things to an advanced level, both conceptually and in execution. Where he’s previously invoked—lovingly, coyly, ironically—Jewish tradition (in general) and cantorial songs (in particular), this endeavor is necessarily all-in, and where Yoshie has trod the thin line between inspiration and escape, this time out he carves his own unique, almost quixotic turf. He pulls it off, and in the process has set the bar for ways we can imagine intersections between the old school, the spiritual and the evanescent. At times, you can practically smell the incense in a place of worship; in others you can see the sweat from a brightly-lit stage; when it all comes together it is delightfully disorienting: hearing an ancient world with tomorrow’s ears.

A safer, less satisfying project would take the more predictable route by putting proper songs into a purely musical context. On this outing, there are no half measures: the lyrics (in Yiddish) are sung by Fruchter himself, and he acquits himself quite capably—particularly on opening track “Shir Hashirim”. Indeed, while his singing voice is never less than pleasant or effective, the ways he tweaks vocals, via overdubs and effects, only underscores the otherworldly source material. This is music that rewards all the senses: it makes you think, and it is difficult not to imagine other times and places, even as they are clearly—and occasionally surreally—filtered through the here and now.

Lest anyone, at this point, be concerned this is an exercise in indulgence or an overly academic snoozefest, let it be clearly stated that Cantorial Recordings Reimagined is filled with smoldering life. Fruchter can rock out with the best of them, and while his style is original, there are inevitable maestros some of the playing will call to mind. Where a love and familiarity with Robert Fripp has been apparent (especially on the first Pitom release), the two guitarists this writer keeps hearing traces of are Steve Hackett (Genesis) and jazz genius Sonny Sharrock (notably on second track “Tzur Chayenu”, which features a mid-song vocal meltdown that mutates into a tasty dose of postmodern prog).

Several of the songs, especially “Wehoser Soton”, wouldn’t sound out of place on Mr. Bungle’s California, and there is an exotic use of placid and intense that might make one fondly recall Santana’s Caravanserai. And a shout-out to the aforementioned Madof is entirely warranted, as he covered some of this ground on his masterful record The Gathering. (Cantorial Recordings Reimagined could, in some ways, be seen as a consummation of the creative gauntlet Madof threw down on his track “Jeremiah”.)

Bassist Shanir Blumenkranz adds another notch to that iron man belt, his status as avant-garde go-to guy more secure than ever. Brian Marsella, whose contributions to Zion80 have been celebrated elsewhere, is the essential X-factor on this session: his steady, inventive hands drive several songs, and standout track “B’Rosh Hashonoh” is like The Tony Williams Lifetime meeting John Zorn’s Electric Masada, only mellower and Jewish-er.

Fruchter carves out some space for himself on the fifth and sixth tracks (“Shir Hamalos” and “Vehu Rochum”), showcasing his ability to do light and dark, or gentle and heavy. Only Madof has previously mixed the tritone and the synagogue so successfully, and how many musicians would even attempt to mesh gloomy and reverent in such a fashion? Another highlight is “Brich Shmeh”, wherein Fruchter really gets into his own thing, alternating between banjo, Sharrockian shredding and, with the assistance of Marsella and percussionist Rich Stein, a swinging (!) Eastern vibe.

The proceedings are brisk and, fortunately, Fruchter does not stretch the material—or himself—too thin. There’s no repetition and several stylistic avenues are explored. Cantorial Recordings Reimagined, after multiple listens, certainly prevails as a continuation of previous projects, but carves out wholly new territory, mixing rabbinical, metal and sophisticated jazz, all in the service of some deeply spiritual, utterly convincing sounds.

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

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2/21/14:

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/

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

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2/10/14:

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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Jon Madof’s Brilliant Corners: Zion80 ‘Adramelech’

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Jon Madof has been making many people—like this fan—happy for over a decade. The scope of his projects, particularly the trio he masterminds, Rashanim, has been a source of ceaseless delight. During the last few years Madof has concentrated his focus on a bigger, more ambitious undertaking: Zion80.

Where their self-titled debut release was an expert mash-up of, as Madof himself describes the band, Shlomo Carlebach meets Fela Kuti, the new release Adramelech has the collective tackling Volume 22 (!) of John Zorn’s epic Book of Angels series. That would be the same John Zorn whose productivity makes Johann Sebastian Bach seem like a slacker. In fact, he released two new albums as I typed that last line. Just kidding, mostly.

Zorn is nothing if not a visionary, but even by the incredibly high standards he’s set for himself, the idea of letting other musicians tackle each new volume of his Book of Angels has been a gift that giveth much. For one, and most obviously, it’s a plethora of new material, itself something—in terms of depth and achievement—that will only accrue import in years ahead. We’re too busy living through his superhuman career in real time to properly appreciate exactly how locked in and, really, untouchable he is.

Jon Madof has already established himself as one of the more sensitive and successful interpreters of Zorn’s material. His recording Masada Rock remains one of this writer’s favorite of the dozens of discs featuring brilliant musicians doing Zorn. It’s a must-have for anyone who is remotely enticed by the notion of klezmer meets surf guitar meets speed metal meets world music with a free jazz sensibility. And who isn’t enticed by that?

Where Zion80 was a raucous but controlled, fiery but focused free-for-all, something you could shake your head and ass to, Adramelech manages to go deeper and be, if possible, more encompassing. It also comes with a welcome edge and, like the previous disc, insists on being grappled with on its own terms. In this regard, it’s quite consistent with much of the work Zorn and Madof have done. But this is not merely a more-is-more celebration of Zorn with Madof at the helm. Rather, it taps into what is most special—and rewarding—about the Radical Jewish Culture that Zorn has been curating at his Tzadik label: music that spans time (we’re talking centuries) and crosses cultures, yet somehow, in ways that are both delirious and delightful, is totally of the here and now. It’s cutting edge history, made by musicians who know and respect tradition, but are dissatisfied with labels and the limitations of genre. Perhaps this is why you won’t hear this music on the radio. It’s also why people will be listening to this album one hundred years from now.

There’s nothing not to recommend about this release, it is further evidence that virtually everything Madof touches turns to sonic gold. The album is stellar from start to finish but picks up steam as it goes along. A few highlights have to include “Shamdan”, which mixes guitar-driven jamming alongside saxophonic frenzy in ways the only debut hinted at. On “Metatron” the groove gradually breaks down into inspired chanting that is equal parts disarming and deep, an authentically felt religious vibe (a la Madof’s masterpiece, The Gathering), Gregorian chants in the mosh pit—with yarmulkes flying every which way. Each player gets an opportunity to stride to the forefront, and those moments are picked wisely and utilized judiciously: there are no wasted notes or indulgent moments; this execution is precise and methodical.

The two tracks that close out the session exemplify everything—on micro and macro levels—that make this project so unique and fulfilling. On the macro level, there is the obvious and absolute realization of Zorn’s compositional objective: dense but accessible notes delivered with distilled emotion; music your mind can dance to. On the micro level, Madof has amassed an impeccable ensemble of players, and each individual acquits himself wonderfully. And herself, in the case of Jessica Lurie, whose flute solo on “Nehinah” is so tasty, filthy and ferocious it would make Ian Anderson wet his knickers. It’s a high point on an album full of them. Brian Marsella makes the most of his moments in the spotlight (his techno-punk intro to “Nehinah” is top shelf stuff), and Shanir Blumenkranz continues to bolster his credentials as one of the most versatile and significant bass players on the scene. His fuzzed-out bass propels “Ielahiah”, setting a brooding, intense, and heavy tone for the entire piece, which circles its way into a guitar dual between Madof and Yoshie Fruchter. As Madof stalks and strikes, Fruchter hammers out a stuttering cascade of stark notes, the brutality escalating into a climax that offers unbelievable, affecting release.

It’s not necessarily a bad thing that music today, by virtue of so many streamed services catering to every taste, can be cataloged according to specific genre and style. One problem, of course, is that music is increasingly roped into predetermined corners, and increasingly created with these considerations in mind. Rare, indeed, is an endeavor that might genuinely appeal to listeners who create playlists dedicated to trance, or jam-band, or world music, or jazz, or metal. Zion80 is throwing a lot of styles on the table, but it’s never forced or facile. It is challenging but rewards an adventurous and intelligent audience. It can be enjoyed without obliging analysis (and should be seen live if at all possible), but for the person who brings some measure of cultural awareness and curiosity to the table, the only corners being navigated are the brilliant ones Thelonious Monk imagined, back in the days when your music was as serious as your life.

This review originally appeared at PopMatters on 11/14/14

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The Intersection of Innovation and Art: Looking at the Music and Book Industries (Revisited)

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I’ve followed developments in the shifting landscape of content—the ways it’s created and the ways it’s utilized—with keen professional, as well as personal interest. During the last decade advancements that benefit both artists and consumers, have revolved around the democratization of content. What does that mean? In brief, it no longer requires complex and expensive technologies and processes to make and acquire works of art.

Today, just about anyone can publish a book, or make an album, and a lot of people are trying. Does this potentially flood the market with inferior product? Certainly. Does it also ensure that more artists 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. That said, the Internet changed everything. In an analog world, DIY meant selling cassettes out of your car. Digital files put both the creation and dissemination into the hands of the artists, and the last decade has been a welcome departure from an archaic model and a lifeline for artists outside the so-called mainstream.

(A lot more on this topic and how it has pertained to my own endeavors, can be found HERE.)

Jamie Saft, a critically acclaimed musician who has appeared on dozens of albums, made the decision in 2007 to form his own label. Veal Records is now a vital independent source of music, allowing Saft to work with whomever he wishes and releasing whatever material he desires anytime he wants. Nevertheless, just because the tools exist for virtually anyone to do this, it takes more than talent and good luck. The new DIY ethos demands a proficiency at production, distribution and marketing. Social media provides a crucial marketing advantage, and the ease with which fans can connect and spread the word with potential fans is a major breakthrough.

The book publishing industry operated according to a fairly specific—and consistent—paradigm for hundreds of years. In the not-so-good old days, gatekeepers typically held sway, overseeing acquisition, creation and dissemination. Today, digital content is ubiquitous and hardware has been invented (think eReaders and tablets, even smartphones) that enables consumers to access identical material in myriad ways.Just like the music industry, book publishing has undergone a sea change. With the benefit of hindsight, it seems clear that the ways books were acquired and sold was a model ripe for disruption. Inevitably, the increased obsolescence of gatekeepers and tastemakers (see: traditional publishing houses and establishment critics) has resulted in blowback about “legitimacy.” Never mind the fact that Walt Whitman self-published his first poems, we typically don’t see similar bias against, say, family vineyards or craft breweries. As usual, those protesting loudest are the ones accustomed to owning the process and the lion’s share of the profits.
Richard Nash, who ran celebrated independent publisher Soft Skull Press for the better part of last decade, has been intimately involved with these progressions. His exposure to the way things used to work, the ways they changed, and the ways they still might evolve, affords him a unique and invaluable perspective. His primary interest involves what happens once the book comes to market, competing against the other inventory seeking an audience.The key takeaway? 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 enthusiasm, 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.Self-publishing is not the end, it’s only the beginning, according to Nash: an invitation to the party that needs an MC. Whether it’s the structured chaos of Amazon reviews to the more refined parameters of Goodreads, new services are enabling a crowd-based curation. The notion that likeminded readers can—and will—follow recommendations and then evangelize accordingly, might be the next stage in this evolution.

http://www.ce.org/Blog/Articles/2013/November/Intersection-of-Innovation-and-Art-Looking-at-the.aspx

 

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

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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.

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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.

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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/

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

madof

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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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/

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

Yesterday we wrapped another conversation for CEA’s ongoing series “The Intersection of Art & Innovation.”

(Previous discussions can be found HERE, HERE and HERE.)

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/

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