The Primal Sublime
The very name of The Sway Machinery, a Brooklyn-based cantorial-infused supergroup, brings to mind the conjunction of the natural and the created, the human and the machine, and the group’s music rejoices in that paradox.
The musicians, coming from relatively mainstream bands, here align themselves with the primeval drive to dance and with its sublime manifestation as transcendental *shuckling *(swaying). This not the stiff, traditional hazanut of your fathers and grandfathers, nor is it the increasingly common polite avant-garde jazz/klezmer fusion. Sway Machinery’s sound pulses with barely controlled movement.
Frontman and guitarist Jeremiah Lockwood (also of Balkan Beat Box) described to the Forward how The Sway Machinery’s first album, “Hidden Melodies Revealed” (released April 7), is profoundly wild, with layered brass employing unique sources — even the sounds of imagined prehistoric animals. The braying, interlocking trumpets that kick off such tracks as “Intro,” “Anim Zemiros” and “A Staff of Strength” (among others) suggest a marching band or an elephant parade gone berserk, and hearing the choral crowds chant in the epic crescendo of “Adiray Ayuma” reminds one less of a High Holy Day congregation responding to its cantor than — again in Lockwood’s words — “of a triumphant army brigade emerging from a tunnel.”
To simply call the group’s sound, as many reviewers have, an eclectic blend of klezmer, blues, indie-folk, Afro-pop and hazanut does The Sway Machinery no justice. True: The group’s sound is certainly not free of the influence of these historically and culturally familiar genres. Indeed, The Sway Machinery’s composition is as diverse, primal and epic as its sound. But with the deep woolly mammoth bellows of bass saxophonist Colin Stetson (of Arcade Fire); the brassy, blaring, and sharp tones of tenor saxophonist Stuart Bogie and trumpeter Jordan McLean (both of Antibalas); the dramatically raucous jazz beats of drummer Brian Chase (of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs), and Lockwood’s mildly raspy but mostly grandiose voice over his understated but critically centered arpeggiated guitar, this all-star lineup attempts a new genre of post-cantorial music with a flair that transcends even the sum of its independently talented parts, achieving a musically fresh visionary space that celebrates both the primal and the sublime.
I hadn’t heard of The Sway Machinery until last September. An Israeli friend of mine had been visiting New York City for the month and had recommended we meet up at the Millinery Center Synagogue on Sixth Avenue at about midnight on a Thursday. To those unfamiliar with the contemporary post-Hasidic bohemian scene, this may seem like a strange place and time for a licit rendezvous. But for those in the know, the Millinery Center Synagogue informally hosts a weekly gathering affectionately known as “The Chulent.” This gathering attracts a smorgasbord of traditional, neo and post-Hasidic Jews, as well as anyone interested in vegetarian chulent, the occasional Torah lecture or folk concert, and general night-long rabble rousing and merrymaking.
When we arrived, we saw chulent-eaters with and without yarmulkes, sidelocks, frocks, piercings and colored hair, spread out in what was becoming a crowded space. Some had spilled out onto the already crowded porch area for a cigarette break; others retreated to some of the more hidden rooms in the back for what seemed like a more aromatic convention. It was only after midnight that The Sway Machinery took the stage, and although I hadn’t anticipated a performance by the band that night, I was transfixed as the musicians played into the early morning.
After the performance, Lockwood described the experience of playing The Chulent as surreal, dreamy and of incredible personal importance. Watching men and women who had either shed or retained their full Hasidic garb excitedly sway and jump to the words of familiar liturgies and melodies — High Holy Day and otherwise — and to the sounds of the brass- and blues-suffused but lofty cantorial-driven rhythms, almost as if they were at a tish (gathering) around their fathers’ and grandfathers’ rebbe, was reason to rejoice. I was similarly startled by the band’s strikingly fresh-but-familiar sound, driven into the rhythms struck by Lockwood’s entrancing guitar and sharp hazanlike voice, and by the accompanying bleating horns. And that’s when I realized: The Sway Machinery posits a grand and ambitious vision. This is the cantorial music of our generation: It is the rhythm and accompaniment to which we would set our traditional melodies, had we the tools and vision Lockwood and his Sway Machinery possess.
That night, The Sway Machinery’s stage presence and voice transcended even the traditional roots the band claims as their base: At times, Lockwood interjected the swinging cantorial favorites with a mystical, nasal and preacherlike voice, telling original and home-spun folktales reminiscent of those midrashic or Hasidic. At other points, he seemed to get lost in a Robert Plant-like blues-jam, hearkening back to his previous projects with blues legend Carolina Slim. He, along with the rest of The Sway Machinery, displaced all the usual musical anticipations with the surprisingly rich yarn of story, song and sway.
Gratifyingly, “Hidden Melodies Revealed” similarly captivates with a rich presentation of diverse vocal tonalities and musical genres. On the album, Lockwood successfully and dramatically replicates the storytelling technique you might witness at any of the group’s live performances, introducing at least three of his songs with his own grand mythologies of fallen kings (“The Mask”), misunderstood princesses (“The Princess”) and disillusioned artisan immigrants (“When I First Came to This Country”). His cantorial-infused songs are likewise influenced by multiple sources: “I Shall Chant Praise,” for example, is not a cantorial favorite; in fact, I was surprised to learn from him that the song is a variation on a traditional Breslov melody. And while the ambitious and elaborate “Ahavas Olam” and “Avinu Malkenu” have stronger cantorial foundations, both are original compositions of Lockwood’s recently deceased grandfather, cantor Jacob Konigsburg, with whom he spent weekly childhood visits listening to such great cantors as Zawel Kwartin, Pierre Pinchik and Berele Chagy.
For Lockwood, cantorial music’s “mythical potential” transcends even the genre’s spiritual nature. Expounding on cantorial music’s world, reminiscent of a fairy tale, as well as on his influence by the Hasidic tradition of folk tale and music, he explained how the music principally evokes a mythical world of possibilities, a world in which we are invited to find and create our own stories. Through a freshly cast sound in (what often seems to be) a dry and obsolete tradition, The Sway Machinery encourages us to make our own stories and locate that “mythical space”— what Lockwood calls “the fairy-tale-like quality” of cantorial music. Through his medium, what he hopes to teach is, “Everyone needs to dig into the realm of stories and mystical teaching,” and that Judaism will return to this “intellectual promise” in which Jews will “continue to plunge into stories,” connecting and continuing their inherent folk tradition through story and music-making.
Slipping away from The Chulent at around 2 a.m., I was left with the resounding, triumphant vision of Hasidim of the old world dancing to familiar music retold and recast in a new age; and I retained echoes of the words Lockwood croons so well on his sole English and blues track, titled “Tell It All to Me”: “Oh babe/I put my symphony in your hands.” Indeed, Sway Machinery’s symphonic achievement is the disenfranchisement of its claim to meaning, myth and music. We are the myth-makers; we are telling and retelling our stories, forever making them relevant. We are those New Age Hasidim dancing to age-old tunes set to even fresher rhythms.
In fact, it is so wonderful simply because it is in our hands.
Hillel Broder is a high school teacher and graduate student of literature.
To read a Q&A With Jeremiah Lockwood, click here.