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


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.” Nevermind 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 Pressfor 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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Notes From the Underground: Two New Joints From Jamie Saft

Every day, Jamie Saft becomes more like his mentor, the indefatigable—and incomparable—John Zorn. Like Zorn, he is ludicrously productive, aesthetically audacious and churns out albums that are as amazing as much for their consistency as their diversity.

Having an opportunity to simultaneously appraise these two new albums is almost too easy. As in, it’s simple to make this statement: The two releases could scarcely be more different, but each is fully satisfying in their unique ways.

A fully improvised session, Black Aces is at once an adventure and the inexorable result of similarly attuned musicians. A few words about these players: Jamie Saft has appeared (as leader or supporting cast) on too many albums to count, and those familiar with Zorn’s Tzadik label already understand—and appreciate—just how busy he’s been in his relatively brief, at least in mere human terms, career. Guitarist Joe Morris has been making albums and establishing his credentials for over 30 years, and is generally regarded as a jazz musician’s jazz legend. Trevor Dunn, perhaps best known for his work with genre-demolishing supergroup Mr. Bungle, is also now a veteran of the NYC downtown music scene, an integral component of multiple Tzadik releases. Finally, drummer Balazs Pandi, who hails from Budapest, brings his considerable skills to the table, comfortable playing ear-blasting metal as well as improvised grindcore.

A word or two about improvisation may be necessary. There is the relatively straightforward type where jazz musicians take skillful liberties with a readily recognized standard (think Coltrane and the ways he transformed “My Favorite Things”, especially in his incendiary live performances). Then there is the without-a-net, made up on the spot sort that makes some listeners ecstatic and others allergic. Put simply, only musicians with this much experience, musicians capable of attempting this can hope to pull it off. Saft and Morris have known each other for 20 years, and Saft describes his vision thusly: “I thought metal, hardcore and grindcore styles as a rhythmic underpinning to micro-tonal avant blues-rock would feature Joe’s guitar beautifully.” Couldn’t have said it better myself.

Black Aces is definitely the latter variety of spontaneous creation, and it is at once intimidating, but also a potentially intoxicating brew for the open-minded. Consider “Accuser”, the 27 (!) minute opening selection: it features the type of intensity and interplay faux jam bands kill to emulate. The collective establishes a groove and then work it from all angles. If all the predictable, predictably bland jamming one recalls from outdoor festivals is like unflavored tofu, Slobber Pup is cooking up a porterhouse, served bloody rare.

What does it sound like? There are elements of Painkiller (Zorn, again) and the beloved Last Exit (Joe Morris might be said to pick up where Sonny Sharrock left off), even early ‘70s Miles Davis, albeit filtered through molten tar. It also calls to mind, at times, Bobby Previte’s The Coalition of the Willing (from 2006, also featuring Saft), but it’s harder and edgier. Bassist Trevor Dunn is at home with harder and edgier, having worked with Fantomas as well as Zorn’s Electric Masada project (Saft, again).

So…what is it? Not really jazz, not necessarily metal, too refined for what we commonly call grindcore. It is what it is: it’s moments captured in 2013 that at times sound like 1969 or 1973 or 2050. It is uncompromising and kindly confrontational in a way that will remind you to remain grateful we still have artists like this amongst us.

New Zion Trio is another of Saft’s projects, and it’s wonderful to see it was not a one-off, since their first release, Fight Against Babylon (review here: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/149276-new-zion-trio-fight-against-babylon/) was so outstanding. An ostensibly straightforward ensemble, featuring Saft’s keyboards, bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Craig Santiago, the trio manages to pull off a variety of sounds, ranging from narcotic lounge music (in a good way) to traditional piano jazz (think Bill Evans by way of Kingston) and darker-than-dread reggae meditations. On Chaliwa, the players double down on the dub, and the results are every bit as satisfying this time out.

To dispel any notions that this is dub-jazz indulgence, consider the fact that Bad Brains vocalist H.R. makes a guest appearance on standout track “Chant It Down”. For fans, like this one, who believe some of the best tracks Bad Brains cut were in a Rub-A-Dub style, this track is a stunning trip back to the future. To be certain, Saft & Co. have a serious knowledge of how reggae sounds and how it works. Most importantly, and what makes this material so rewarding, is how it feels.

Where Fight Against Babylon boasted discernible roots elements, the follow-up is a more focused, entrenched approach to instrumental reggae. At times it recalls a more pure mash-up of what Lee Perry got up to in his laboratory in the late ‘70s; at others it is reminiscent of the epic space jams from Prince Far I’s Cry Tuff Dub Encounter Chapter 3. It works as agreeable background music (again, in a good way), but is meant to be absorbed and internalized. Like the best music, it gets better the more you hear it. If you’ve not given New Zion Trio a try, now is the time to hear what everyone else is missing.

In closing, a few celebratory words about the ways the music industry has changed, for the better. While I’m not suggesting that Slobber Pup, or especially New Zion Trio couldn’t or wouldn’t have found a suitably supportive label ten (or twenty!) years ago, I maintain it’s unlikely. Now, musicians like Saft can—and do—bring colleagues together to record, without the agendas or idiocy of corporate middlemen. This is good for artists and it’s great for fans. Of course, the implicit message here is that we should feel obliged to support these notes from the underground any way possible, including—and especially—with our wallets.

Serendipitously, I just had the opportunity to speak with Saft: check out our Google Hangout wherein we discuss the intersection of Innovation and Art:

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Rashanim: Healing Music for Unrighteous Times (Revisited)

4/16/2013:

After yesterday’s horrific reminder of the depths we are willing to sink, as humans, inflicting pain (and/or death) to make some type of senseless point, I don’t have much to say that others aren’t saying –or that I’ve already said.

As such, it is both serendipitous, if opportunistic, that I revisit a post I wrote almost four years ago. This is top of mind already, as I recently had the pleasure of seeing Jon Madof perform live (much more about that, and his new release, very soon). But the topic of this piece, in addition to celebrating The Gathering (an album I feel as strongly about now as I did then), was to reflect on what certain types of music, like Madof’s, can do in times of turmoil. It can –and should– also be enjoyed during times of joy which, for all of us, I hope far outweigh the more challenging times. As hard as it may be to fathom four years passing so quickly, it’s not surprising to note that The Gathering retains an enduring power to inspire, and heal.

***

8/5/2009:

Guess what? Rashanim has recently released what will undoubtedly stand as one of the best albums of 2009.

Guess what else? Rashanim has been making incredible music for the better part of this decade.

One more thing: you are not the only person who has, unfortunately, not heard (or heard of) this band. For all the right reasons, changing that should become a priority in your life. Trust me. I hope and expect to hear many more noteworthy new albums in 2009, but I sincerely doubt I will come across another effort as profoundly effective and moving as this one.

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.)

I first encountered them in 2003 when they appeared on two of Zorn’s Masada special-guest projects, Voices in the Wilderness and The Unknown Masada. (Both of these sets are enthusiastically recommended, and they feature diverse acts ranging from Fantomas to Eyvind Kang and Jamie Saft.) I excitedly picked up their eponymous debut (also released in ’03) and was not disappointed. In 2005 they experimented further with Zorn’s songbook, releasing Masada Rock, an effort that lived up to its name and featured the always amazing Marc Ribot on multiple tracks. This band was quite obviously around to stay, and it couldn’t get any better than this, I thought. I was wrong. In late 2006 they released Shalosh,which showcased Madof’s infectious surf guitar thrash attack, but also represented an ever-evolving compositional prowess. This effort boasts several acoustic guitar tracks that retain the intensity of the electric workouts. Madof was finding 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, yet they are accessible and addictive; they are 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? Surf guitar? All of the above: it’s definitely jazz and it is certainly imbued with a distinctively Jewish sensibility. Above all, it rocks.

If they can only, somehow keep pace with the consistent excellence of the previous efforts, I thought, what a miracle it would be. That was then and this is now, and I’m here to proclaim it from the mountaintop: miracles happen and Rashanim’s The Gathering is cause for joy bordering on disbelief. This, truly, is as good as contemporary music is capable of being, and the latest release is their best work yet.

Like Zorn’s Masada albums, many of the songs have biblical or Hebrew titles (sometimes both), and for the most devout or scholarly (particularly the scholarly devout) these songs may accrue added levels of significance; but like much of Zorn’s catalog, the individual tunes can–and should–be appreciated simply for their superior craftsmanship and the almost inexpressible joy they provide. Like Zorn, and like many of the best composers, the melodies are effusive: instantly identifiable after only a few listens yet strikingly distinctive. This music challenges but rewards abundantly.

On The Gathering Madof never plugs in (it’s an all-acoustic affair) but if anything, the sounds are more varied and ambitious than ever. For instance, Madof breaks out a banjo for multiple songs, to outstanding effect, and the others flesh out the sound with the inspired use of glockenspiel, melodica and jaw harp. There is a warmth and intelligence enveloping all twelve of these cuts, and one marvels at Madof’s ability to constantly create space for himself while creating music that is lush without being remotely cluttered. A few of the tracks rather defy description and simply must be heard. For one, “Elijah’s Chair” is a toe-tapping duet between banjo and melodica. Who else does this? Exactly no one. And this is not a random experiment of sounds for novelty’s sake; this is very serious stuff.

the gathering

On one of the stronger tracks, “Deborah”, the intensity is ratcheted up as Kunzli smashes the drums while Madof works a mean slide over multi-tracked acoustic (and banjo) strumming. The groove is in full effect on “Elijah’s Chariot”, and Madof continues to impress with his acoustic guitar proficiency (it would be difficult to imagine any fan of, say, Dave Matthews Band or Phish or Medeski Martin and Wood not digging this: if the better jam bands out there are unspooling novellas on the stage, Rashanim is crafting short stories: equally compelling, but with a clever, if strategic economy of notes). Another standout is “Kings”, featuring some of Madof’s most inspired writing/playing thus far: the song is calmly insistent, but not urgent; there is palpable energy that eschews feedback or effects to convey a feeling. The tracks that close the album, “Jeremiah” and “Joshua” take the proceedings to another level, that other place the best art is capable of connecting us with. Over a chanted invocation (in Hebrew), Madof uncorks yet another inventive and enticing melody: it sounds like something that could be played in a place of worship, yet it retains a bluesy, almost somber edge. The final song slowly builds up as a guitar/banjo conversation, and then the drums and bass come in, ratcheting up the tension until it finally breaks with a joyous, sing-along outro. The band is firing on all cylinders.

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.

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John Zorn at 60

I’ve written a great deal about John Zorn (in some detail here and here, and his name is appropriately dropped and checked in the course of discussions of other jazz musicians, especially the ones recording on his Tzadik label).

Here is an excerpt from one of those pieces:

I’ve not had much to say, in print, to this point about John Zorn for a variety of reasons, but it ultimately boils down to two very simple issues. First, there is so much to say it’s both exhausting and intimidating to consider; how to even grapple with an output like this? Second, and perhaps more significant, I’m not at all certain my best efforts would sufficiently convey how important his music is (to me, for starters) and how truly all-encompassing his sensibility has become. And that’s just in the last twelve months…

Consider his Masada songbook: 100 compositions he wrote in the early ’90s, and then recorded over the course of ten albums with the (then acoustic) Masada band, including Dave Douglas on trumpet, Greg Cohen on bass and Joey Baron on drums. The klezmer-meets classic Ornette Coleman Quartet vibe, too often and easily invoked as a way of describing what this music sounds like, nevertheless is an acceptably succinct summation. These tunes were covered by another working band, Bar Kokhba (which brought in Cyro Baptista on percussion, Marc Ribot on guitar, Mark Feldman on violin and Eric Friedlander on cello–all mainstays in the NYC downtown music scene), giving the compositions an augmented grandeur that keeps the material challenging (mostly for the players) and always accessible.  The Masada String Trio (Cohen, Feldman and Friedlander) also recorded and performed this material live.

Suffice it to say, when it comes to Zorn, hearing is believing:

And seeing is not quite believable:

In honor of the great man’s 60th birthday, The Walker Art Org (more on them here) has assembled sixty artists to wax rhapsodic. The feature is split into two parts and can be found  HERE and HERE.

A handful of highlights:

Besides being a composer and improviser, John is an important catalyst for a lot of the musical activity in New York City for the past four decades. His record company Tzadik has recorded hundreds of musicians from around the world in many diverse musical styles. His club the Stone offers challenging and interesting music night after night in New York City. Through his book series Arcana, he has published six books of essays by many different musicians writing about an astonishing variety of musical topics. It’s amazing that he has the time to do all of this and continue to produce, record, and compose.

John is an advocate of talent, both young and old. I’ve seen him go out of his way to help musicians by recording and promoting their music. He loves music that is experimental, different, unexpected, and takes chances. He has a healthy irreverence towards the conventional musical establishment.

–Uri Caine

I first heard John Zorn in the late ’70s when he came to my hometown of Los Angeles as part of a duo tour he was doing with guitarist Eugene Chadbourne. They played two nights at the Century City Playhouse. Zorn was instantly memorable with long hair pulled randomly into an almost-ponytail, glasses barely on his nose, football jersey, and cutoffs; his alto and curved soprano saxophones strapped on simultaneously around his neck and his clarinet held mostly between his scrawny legs. Impressively, I heard that they were touring on Greyhound buses with no change of clothes. I mention this because as the years progressed and I kept track of John as he started his gamesmanship pieces, put on concerts all over lower Manhattan, worked at SoHo Music Gallery, mounted tributes to some of his favorite jazz and film composers, etc., etc., he has, in my mind, always been as gonzo as that Greyhound tour. He is amazingly disciplined, thorough, iconoclastic, prolific, uncompromising—an artist through and through.

–Nels Cline

I also want to say something about the fact that, while John is as individual a creator as we have, he is, at the same time, someone who is and has always been actively concerned with community building. Way before Tzadik and The Stone, John was always right in the center of our musical world— organizing, engaging, challenging, cajoling. I can personally say that his encouragement and support have lifted me out of dark times of crippling doubt more often than I would like to admit.

–Anthony Coleman

Over the years, I’ve come to believe that the power of John’s work lies in his deep understanding of what makes us want to risk our very lives, as he has, to create music. I don’t think that John is in love with “all” sound, a viewpoint that is often attributed to Cage—erroneously, in my view. Rather, it is the evocative and meaningful sound that John consistently finds—not only in terms of history and memory, but also, and more crucially, in terms of its emotionally primordial effects on our bodies. With his refusal of convenient fixities and total opposition to cant, John has opened the ears, eyes, hearts, and minds of many people around the world, and I count myself among them with gratitude.

–George Lewis

From working with him in the recording studio to performing with him on stage to listening to his recordings, the openness, depth, and brilliance of John’s music and personality have only become more and more apparent to me during this time. He never ceases to amaze and inspire, and embodies the spirit of artistic vision and commitment more than anyone I know.

–Jon Madof

In a time when the musical establishment was more about narrowing doors than opening them, John burst through. But he burst through not just for himself, but for a legion of artists looking for a home: a corner where one could be heard, nurtured, and let loose. John’s career has always been about integrity, depth, and exploration. He knows no boundaries, and, as his friends will tell you, he goes to his own limits to help his community and yet manages to maintain a rigorous composition schedule and a sense of humor about life.

–Paola Prestini

One of Zorn’s verbal instructions to Quine: “I want you to sum up your whole life in this seven-second solo.”

Quine: “I’ll just lay out.”

–Marc Ribot

As far as the music, it has always spoken for itself. You like it, you dislike it, I’m sure to him it means the same. A true original.

–Bill Laswell

Simply put, any fan of Zorn’s needs to read these tributes. Anyone not a fan, or even familiar with the man, is encouraged to check it out. It’s one thing when a certain number of fans dig someone’s work. It’s yet another when a certain number of critics form something approaching consensus. But when you have a certain (i.e., large) number of fellow artists who use words like “inspiration”, “force of nature” and “genius”, it speaks volumes.

Put simply, there are few artists in any genre who amaze, perplex and inspire me as much as Zorn. I remain in awe of his creativity, his energy level (!) and his drive. More than any single human being I’ve seen or heard about, this cat has not only sucked the marrow out of life, he has sucked the life out of every marrow he could get his mouth around.

Here’s to the happiest of birthdays, and for all of our sakes’, let’s sincerely hope there are many, many returns.

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Kicking off the New Year with Rashanim

2011 is so last year. What, you might ask, can we look forward to in 2012?

Three of my favorite things, all at once: Rashanim, Tzadik and Fela Kuti.

Here is the scoop: Rashanim’s new expanded project features songs by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach with arrangements inspired by the Afrobeat master Fela Anikulapo Kuti. Stay tuned for an upcoming CD on John Zorn’s Tzadik Records!

Madof has put a couple of clips on YouTube (see below).

Anyone who has read this blog understands that both Rashanim and Pitom have made some of my favorite albums during the past few years. This project pulls Rashanim mastermind Jon Madof (more on him here) together along with Tzadik label-mate and fellow guitarist Yoshie Fruchter (more on him here), along with horns (trumpet and sax). Afrobeat meets radical jewish culture? Yes, please!

I can’t wait for more from this new project. Until now, we can feast on the morsels Madof has provided, below. Happy New Year!

Ein K’elokeinu

V’Shamru

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The Top 10 Albums of 2011, According To Me (Part Two)

 

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.

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New Zion Trio: Fight Against Babylon

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?

It is, in fact, the projects he has led that make his most recent release understandable, if inevitable. As a player equally comfortable behind a piano or an organ (as well as keyboards of any kind), Saft has delivered convincing performances as an acoustic player as well as one who happily plugs in. His trio turned in a delectable take on Zorn’s Masada: Book Two (Astaroth: Book of Angels Volume 1), which is as close to traditional as Saft ever gets. On the other end of the spectrum, two of his albums, Sovlanut and Breadcrumb Sins might best be described as dubbed-up Eastern electronica. At times sounding like Klezmer meets King Tubby, these releases are heavy without being dark, and ever-so-slightly unsettling. Saft achieves the improbable: a radical deconstruction and re-imagining of the classic Dub it up blacker than Dread aesthetic perfected by Lee “Scratch” Perry in the mid-to-late ‘70s.

Where the previous Reggae-tinged efforts used distortion and dissonance to create a sort of ambient dub soundscape, his New Zion Trio seeks clarity and concision. It would be more than a little unimaginative to describe this set as “jazz with reggae beats”, but that may be how it sounds at first blush. First off, that wouldn’t be the worst thing; who but Jamie Saft would even think of such a thing, much less be able to pull it off? Second, after a few listens it may occur to the listener that it is incredibly challenging to pull of this sound organically. Successful dub tracks employ all manner of effects, loops and studio tweaking; in lesser hands it can be gratingly in-your-face or worse, facile. The masters (like Perry and Tubby and, in later years, Bill Laswell) cannily utilize recognizable melodies—often taken from established songs—and decode them by reducing and embellishing at the same time. The best dub has a vertiginous element that, once you understand its logic, becomes addictive.

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 first couple of tracks, “Slow Down Furry Dub” and “Niceness”, cascading piano and a steady backing riddim provided ably by bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Craig Santiago could almost be called Kingston cocktail jazz. The pace is unhurried and Saft is able to stretch out, expertly tinkering and prodding the ebb and flow. Saft’s playing is typically assured and he brings a recognizable elegance to the acoustic tracks. Again, the pace is deliberate and the vibe is mellow, but Saft never lapses into repetition or relaxation mode. After several listens one realizes that the piano is performing the roles of singer, lead guitarist and  dub engineer.

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.

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Introducing Aram Bajakian

My review of Aram Bajakian’s remarkable debut Aram Bajakian’s Kef dropped yesterday at Popmatters. (check it out here).

It’s not too early to predict that this will end up as one of my personal choices for best-of-year releases. Here is the conclusion of the review.

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.

Aram recently took the time to answer some questions and discuss his evolving aesthetic. This is a musician we can –and should– expect to hear amazing things from for a long time. If you are at all interested in adventurous, exciting music, it’s about time you got acquainted with him.

1. Your press materials include the story of your debut at age 10, where at a talent show you emulated Jimmy Page’s violin bow on guitar pyrotechnics (from “Dazed and Confused”). Presumably Zeppelin was an early influence? Who were you listening to then, and who would you name amongst the musicians you’ve learned from?

Yeah, the story is true. I actually had a picture of Jimmy Page on my homeroom desk in fifth grade. I would rent The Song Remains the Same video every weekend. The sound was so great! Bonham’s solos. Page’s solos. Plant’s crotch. Then my mom made me watch Amadeus and I got really into classical music. Mozart, Bach and Prokofiev were biggies for me. I studied classical guitar and took lessons and harmony, though I didn’t really understand theory at that point. I read all the theory books and tried to make myself have perfect pitch. It didn’t work. Then I got into punk and noise. Sonic Youth’s EVOL was a big influence. Then once high school hit I became a jazz snob for a few years, but managed to effectively shed that. Now I’m mostly influenced by the people I play with. For my own projects I try and get people who are going to push me and make me better, so I don’t become stale and so that music doesn’t become lame. You always want to be on your toes.

2. Although born and raised in Central Massachusetts your music has obvious Armenian influences (in fact, I learned from your press materials that the name of this trio –and album– “Kef”, refers to Armenian dance music). Can you elaborate on the cultural heritage and ways your sensibility was shaped by your upbringing?

There’s a large Armenian community in Central Massachusetts, where I was brought up. I would always go with my grandparents to the Armenian dances and hear the oud music. But I never really studied it. A few years back, Shanir Blumenkrantz said to me “with a name like Aram Bajakian how can you not be playing Armenian music?” That’s when Kef was born.

3. Walk us through your career thus far. When did you realize you wanted to be a professional musician? Any highlights (or lowlights) you care to mention amongst your gigging career thus far?

I’ve always played music and always wanted to play music, literally since I was in preschool. The highlights are any time I can perform. I try and play with the same respect for the music whether I’m in a rehearsal, or playing in front of ten people at a bar in NY, or playing in front of 50,000 people at a festival with Lou (Reed). But it’s hard to be a musician in NYC, even when you’re playing with great artists. The other day I had to lug my amp and pedals, about 40 lbs. worth of gear, up 5 flights of subway stairs in the rain. It sucked. But things could be worse. I could always be a lawyer or a banker, or in some destitute village in Somalia.

4. It’s difficult to be a jazz fan in NYC and not at least be aware of John Zorn (and Tzadik). How did you link up with this label, which is so ideally suited for your work?

I had approached John with the idea a few years back. Marc Ribot introduced us. The good thing is that even with that, John wouldn’t put out the project. It was because I hadn’t done anything with it yet. So I decided that I’d make a record that was so good he’d have to put it out. It was a good challenge for me, because as an artist, it’s easy to let your mind or laziness get in the way.

5. Presumably you’ve played with/interacted with some of the guitar studs from that label, including Marc Ribot, Jon Madof and Yoshie Fruchter?

Yes, I’ve played Ribot and Madof. Will probably play with Fruchter on Oct. 26th at the Tzadik Festival on the LES. Ribot is a genius because he’s able to sound like he’s picking up the guitar for the very first time. That is probably the hardest thing to do. And then he’ll play one little thing that will just tear you apart.

6. How would you describe your aesthetic and what you are after (on this release but also what you are doing next, and after that…)

I remember when I was in fourth grade and my parents got me my first electric guitar for Christmas. It was a crappy Kay guitar with a battery powered amp. I spent days just playing simple chords on it relishing in the sound. My aesthetic is to always go back to that same feeling of loving the sound. So often musicians can get stuck in technique or ideas. That usually results in boring music. What I want is more raw and guttural than that. I’m not trying to do anything revolutionary or cutting edge or innovative or avant-garde. It’s really all about working from that other space. That’s what I practice now.

7. You played with Lou Reed this summer. Describe that experience, and how that incredible opportunity came your way…

Zorn had recommended me for the gig. I went to audition and his manager came out and said “sorry, but Lou’s going to go with the guitarist who’s in there now.” I went home and forgot about it. You can’t get worked up about those things; I felt honored just to be asked. Three days later my daughter was born, which was the most intense thing I’ve ever experienced. About a week later, Lou’s manager called and asked me to come to the studio to play for Lou. It was nine in the morning and I had been up all night changing diapers. I was dead tired and really not giving a fuck. But still, I went in and decided I was going to get the gig. Lou had me solo on “Sweet Jane” and I played my ass off. A lot of people have said to me since then that it’s a “hot seat” gig. That he pushes his musicians and can be difficult. My response to that is “do you really want a gig that isn’t a hot seat gig?” Do you really want to just go through the motions? Lou teaches you to start out at 150%, and that is a life-long lesson. You have to have the tone and the technical skills, but you need something more too. You need to play with all you have. That’s why he’s Lou Reed. And whenever he gives someone shit its only because he really cares about it being as good as it can be. It’s not a personal thing. You can’t take it personally.

8. What albums (jazz and otherwise) have had the biggest impact on you?

Smashing Pumpkins Gish, Fugazi’s Repeater, Sonic Youth’s EVOL, and Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. Anything by the Rail Band of Bamako, Booker T and MGs, Miles Davis Live at the Plugged Nickel. Anything by The Beatles. I’ve gone for a few months only listening to them. That’s a good thing to do. PJ Harvey, Radiohead, Ribot. Really, if you’re a musician you should listen to as much music as you can. You should listen to metal. Messhugah is awesome! Those rhythms! And Metallica is like a Ferrari! I love Indian music. Carnatic music is awesome! Forro music from Brazil is awesome! Accordions with a triangle and bass drum! It’s awesome. What about Vivaldi? Certainly The Four Seasons is overplayed, but his harmonies are awesome! Radiohead. Sometimes avant-garde people can be too cool for certain things. I say fuck that. The producer Hal Wilner was on the tour with us for a few days this summer. We’d listen to everything. We’d go from listening to Barry Harris playing Monk, to Beyoncé to some obscure noise metal band to Radiohead. It was a real lesson in listening.

9. What else do we need to know, about you/Kef?

I love food. www.aramscarum.blogspot.com Please buy my CD and support music! Yes I play with Lou Reed and have a record on Tzadik. I also still have a day job in real estate here in NYC. It’s a good job and I like it, but if you support my music, at some point I’ll be able to do that exclusively.

10. (Editor’s note): See below.

For more info, check Aram out at arambajakian.com.

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Aram Bajakian: Aram Bajakian’s Kef

Aram Bajakian’s Fractured Folk Tales

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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John Zorn: Magister Artium Gandensis 2011

I’ve written a great deal about John Zorn (in some detail here and here, and his name is appropriately dropped and checked in the course of discussions of other jazz musicians, especially the ones recording on his Tzadik label).

Here is an excerpt from one of those pieces:

I’ve not had much to say, in print, to this point about John Zorn for a variety of reasons, but it ultimately boils down to two very simple issues. First, there is so much to say it’s both exhausting and intimidating to consider; how to even grapple with an output like this? Second, and perhaps more significant, I’m not at all certain my best efforts would sufficiently convey how important his music is (to me, for starters) and how truly all-encompassing his sensibility has become. And that’s just in the last twelve months…

Consider his Masada songbook: 100 compositions he wrote in the early ’90s, and then recorded over the course of ten albums with the (then acoustic) Masada band, including Dave Douglas on trumpet, Greg Cohen on bass and Joey Baron on drums. The klezmer-meets classic Ornette Coleman Quartet vibe, too often and easily invoked as a way of describing what this music sounds like, nevertheless is an acceptably succinct summation. These tunes were covered by another working band, Bar Kokhba (which brought in Cyro Baptista on percussion, Marc Ribot on guitar, Mark Feldman on violin and Eric Friedlander on cello–all mainstays in the NYC downtown music scene), giving the compositions an augmented grandeur that keeps the material challenging (mostly for the players) and always accessible.  The Masada String Trio (Cohen, Feldman and Friedlander) also recorded and performed this material live.

In the early 2000s 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.

I was not aware that this past August, Zorn  received an honorary award, “Magister Artium Gandensis 2011”, (the prize is bestowed by the University and School of Arts in Ghent, Belgium). Here is some wonderful footage from the event:

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