Three Jewish Albums Channel the Black Music Experience

Zion80, Alon Nechustan and New Zion Trio Bring the Noise

Confusing Fusion: Jon Madof and Zion80 blends Hasidic chants with sounds of the African diaspora.
Courtesy of Jon Madof
Confusing Fusion: Jon Madof and Zion80 blends Hasidic chants with sounds of the African diaspora.

By Jake Marmer

Published June 21, 2013, issue of June 28, 2013.
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Nechushtan, born and educated in Israel, is part of the mass of young Israeli musicians living and working on the East Coast of the United States. It is no wonder that so much of the album feels like a conversation between the him and Rubin — each emblematic of his generation — closely listening and responding to each other’s ideas, supported by a tight rhythm section.

The clarinet is inherently a whimsical-sounding instrument, and Rubin pushes the whimsy to its flailing borders. As he goes into his melodic mode, he seems to steer the sound toward tender, lyrical fragility. Often, though, he explodes with a series of melancholy squeals and squawks, sounding much like some migratory bird struggling to explain itself. The trope of migration is key to both Rubin and Nechushtan. The Chekhovian overtones come to the fore in “Across the Ocean Like a Seagull,” A composition in which Nechushtan’s extensive solo is introspective, unraveled and determined — a flight of the sound that seems to have no prospect of a permanent landing.

New Zion Trio

Chaliwa

Veal Records, $15

About half a year ago, New Zion Trio’s founder, multi-instrumentalist klezmer-jazz-reggae-hard-rocker Jamie Saft, posted an Instagram photo of himself with H.R., vocalist of Bad Brains — the breakthrough African-American band known for its radical blend of punk and reggae genres. It was Saft’s way of announcing that the second album of his experimental reggae-dub project, New Zion Trio, would feature H.R.’s guest appearance, which made the release all the more eagerly anticipated.

Usually centered on vocals, reggae’s feel-good sound came to be identified with Rastafarianism, as it gravitated toward intertwining of social and spiritual concerns. And so, on the “Chant It Down” track, H.R. ruminates on spiritual desolation of the “Babylon,” calling on all to rise for “human rights.” Overlaying the vocal line with his own shivering falsetto harmony, he creates a hypnotic chant. One can’t help but wonder how a protest song, a call for action, can be so laidback. Yet that, perhaps, is the secret of reggae: a nonviolent chant “down” that does not fight as much as it exorcises the negativity that music is up against.

The rest of the album is instrumental, but in line with H.R.’s message: It is a continual free-flowing meditation on the themes hinted in the titles of the compositions: “Zion Heights,” “Cherub Dub,” “King’s Bread,” etc. Given Saft’s extensive proficiency in klezmer, it is not at all surprising that his klezmer-scented track “Pinkus” appears halfway through the album. It follows a more traditional reggae track called “Negus” (“king” in Amharic).

Though a stellar soloist and melody craftsman, Saft seems to hold back throughout the record, exploring instead rhythmic landscapes, veering into minimalism. Sometimes it seems he’s slowly digging for one note, one chord, pondering something, beholding. When asked what it is that poets do, American poet and thinker Denise Levertov reportedly answered, “They praise.” Much the same can be said of Saft and his band, poets of instrumental reggae rhythm and feeling.

Jake Marmer is the author of “Jazz Talmud” (Sheep Meadow Press, 2012) and is a frequent contributor to the Forward.


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