Shanir Blumenkranz’s extensive contribution to the world of radical Jewish music can only be compared to Robbie Shakespeare’s formative influence on reggae. Blumenkranz plays on numerous projects issued by the Tzadik label — so many of them, in fact, that his recognizable style of bass playing is virtually inseparable from the sound has come to define so many of Tzadik’s Radical Jewish Music projects, including Pharaoh’s Daughter, Pitom, Edom, Rashanim and Kef, among others. He has closely collaborated with label’s producer, John Zorn.
So it is particularly exciting to see Blumenkranz in the role of band leader. With guitarists Eyal Maoz and Aram Bajakian, as well as Kenny Grohowski on drums, Blumenkranz has released “Abraxas: Book of Angels 19,” a set of compositions penned by Zorn. Exchanging his usual electric bass for gimbri — an acoustic African instrument with three strings made of goat skin — Blumenkranz propels his ensemble with raw and intricate rhythms.
In contrast with the previous “Book of Angels” rendition by David Krakauer — a darkly whimsical, phantasmagoric record defined by its androgynous plasticity — Blumenkranz’s album is an all-male, three-guitar-and-drums, no-nonsense affair. Most of the tunes apply a jazz approach to the hard rocking, heavy metal sound. Many tracks are danceable, and yet the impulse towards rocking out goes hand in hand with abstraction, a collision of textures and colors.
Unlike their pudgy, cherubic, church-tending counterparts, in Jewish mythology angels are not what you’d call angelic. Ominous and conflicted, with a penchant for irony and obscure turns of phrase, they are messages from the personal and collective subconscious for us to wrestle with. These angels create the parameters of our formative and deformative moments. Perhaps it is in such a context that one might understand “The Book of Angels,” a collection of scores penned by avant-garde composer and saxophonist John Zorn. A number of musical groups have tackled these compositions; the latest encounter is David Krakauer’s “Pruflas: The Book of Angels Vol. 18,” released on Tzadik Records earlier this year.
David Krakauer is among the world’s foremost klezmer clarinetists. He has worked with diverse collaborators, from the neo-classical Kronos Quartet to legendary funk trombonist Fred Wesley. What he brings to this date, in addition to a virtuosic treatment of the score, is the ability to extract from his clarinet sounds one indeed associates with dark corners of the subconscious.
“Secrets of Secrets,” a new album by clarinetist Aaron Novik, has an air of doom about it.
The album takes its name and inspiration from a five-book series written by the Jewish mystic Rabbi Eleazar Rokeach, who lived in Worms and in 1196 witnessed crusaders slaughter his wife and children.
This isn’t the first time Novik has incorporated written sources into his music. “Floating World Vol. 1,” released last year, paid tribute to the poetry of fringe artists of the Mission District area in San Francisco, where Novik is based.
But “Secrets of Secrets,” composed of five tracks all longer than 11 minutes, is more abstruse than that. The music can be hard to listen to: tense and muddy and violent and powerful.
Jamie Saft is far from the only musician who questions and complicates notions of cultural, musical and ethnic identity. That’s bread and butter for many of the artists featured on the Tzadik label, which has now put out six of Saft’s albums, including his latest, “Borscht Belt Studies.” Neither, on this release, does Saft clash, counterpoise, or remix musical styles. Fluid movement in and out musical paradigms and approaches, an approach already familiar to his fans, is not the point. Rather, the album appears to be, indeed, a study — an exploration or rethinking.
Personnel on the date is minimal. Four tracks are solo, with Saft on piano or Fender Rhodes. Six tracks are duos with Ben Goldberg on the clarinet; the last composition is a trio with drums and bass. On the duo tracks, while Goldberg plays klezmer-flavored lines, Saft delves into something that hardly even resembles klezmer. Surrounding the plaintive clarinet solos, the piano work is more than mere comping, or rhythmic background textures. I would venture to say that Saft is exploring the emotional and psychological roots of klezmer, the music’s darker underside, or perhaps even the underside of the people who brought this music to American shores. Whatever the sonic textures may represent — and that is always an elusive question with instrumental music — one can overhear modern and experimental jazz, deep blues, folk, and classical music, all wrapped around a gothic, darkly mysterious feeling.
Tzadik Records’ Radical Jewish Culture releases often split the difference between jazz and klezmer. Both genres drag long canonical histories behind them like the train on a wedding dress. Both are easily innovated upon, prone to flights of improvisation, and adept at locating individual musicians in the midst of a vast history. Joel Rubin and Uri Caine on “Azoy Tsu Tsveyt” rarely stray far from the most essential trappings of their respective genres.
Though many of Tzadik’s albums mine the territory between klezmer and jazz, few show the seams of that synthesis quite as explicitly as Rubin and Caine. It’s not surprising. Whereas other albums often blur genre lines, Azoy clearly delineates where klezmer ends and jazz begins. Rubin, an ethnomusicologist and acclaimed klezmer musician, plays clarinet throughout the album. He riffs off of canonical 78 rpm recordings of klezmer star Naftule Brandwein’s own clarinet styling, such as on the opening to “Kiever.” His playing is skillful, adroit, and his instrument has a warm timbre. Caine’s playing, on a Fender Rhodes and Hammond Organ, is more playful.
Listen to ‘Kiever’:
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