Since the late 90s, Gutbucket have distinguished themselves as purveyors of moody, sardonic, cinematic instrumentals that combine jazz improvisation with noirish rock themes. You could call them a more jazz-inclined version of Barbez, and you wouldn’t be far off. If you miss the days when Tonic was still open and edgy sounds were an everyday thing on the Lower East Side, you’ll be psyched to know that Gutbucket are doing a stand at the Stone from Nov 18 through 23 with two sets nightly at 8 and 10 PM; cover is $10. As you would expect from pretty much everybody who plays there, the band are doing several interesting collaborations and are making a live album in the process. The most enticing set of all might be the early show on opening night when the music will have some added lushness via the strings of the Jack Quartet.
Frontman/guitarist Ty Citerman also has a wickedly fun, tuneful, genre-defying sort-of-solo Tzadik album, Bop Kabbalah, out with his Gutbucket bandmates Ken Thomson on bass clarinet, Adam D. Gold on drums plus Balkan trumpeter Ben Holmes. Although the themes draw on traditional Jewish music, jazz tropes and rock riffage take centerstage. The first track, The Cossack Who Smelt of Vodka (possible ommitted subtitle: what cossack doesn’t smell of vodka?) follows a tensely cinematic, noirish trajectory to a long outro where Citerman’s tensely insistent guitar pairs against Thomson’s calmness.
Conversation with Ghosts works a catchy minor-key theme punctuated by droll leaps and bounds up to a long Holmes solo, then the band reprises it but much more loudly and darkly. Snout moves from squirrelly free jazz into a brief Romany dance, then the band refract it into its moody individual pieces, transforming what under other circumstances would be a party anthem into a fullscale dirge.
The Synagogue Detective bookends a tongue-in-cheek cartoon narrative with alternately biting and goodnaturedly prowling solos from Citerman, Holmes and Thomson. Likewise, they liven the skronky march After All That Has Happened with squalling Steven Bernstein-esque flourishes. In lieu of hip-hop flavor, Talmudic Breakbeat has an unexpected lushness, neatly intertwining voices, some drolly shuffling rudiments from Gold and the album’s most snarling guitar solo.
The album’s most deliciously epic track, Exchanging Pleasantries with a Wall moves up from echoey spaciousness, through a disorienting, funereal groove that brings to mind low-key Sonic Youth as much as it does Bernstein’s arrangements of old Hasidic nigunim. The closing cut puts a clenched-teeth, crescendoing noir dub spin on a broodingly austere old prayer chant. Now where can you hear this treat online? Um…try Citerman’s soundcloud page and youtube channel for starters; otherwise, the Stone is where it’s at, next week.
Saxophonist Uri Gurvich’s BabEl, out earlier this year from Tzadik, blends Middle Eastern influences into jazz with a rich, often majestic power. It’s one of the best albums of 2013..The ensemble here is the core of drummer Francisco Mela’s group, Gurvich out front of Mela, bassist Peter Slavov and pianist Leo Genovese and guest oudist Brahim Frigbane.
They waste no time going deep into a brooding desert mode with a Fribgane taqsim on the intro to the evocative Pyramids, Gurvich’s bitingly bright alto over a dancing rhythm. It’s half a step removed from what could otherwise be a droll Mexican folk melody – but that half step makes all the difference as they ride a long, darkly triumphant vamp out. Dervish Dance works a catchy, Joe Jackson-ish latin tune over a spiraling rhythm, Gurvich’s spiraling chromatics handing off to a dusky piano/bass/drums rumble.
Nedudim – Hebrew for “Journeys” – maintans the modal intensity over dancing rhythm and a terse Genovese piano vamp. After yet another biting Gurvich solo, Genovese – now on organ – takes it into phantasmagorical Ray Manzarek territory. Alfombra Magica follows that and keeps the magic going, a launching pad for subtly dark thematic variations from Gurvich and a coyly terse Slavov solo.
Scalerica de Oro jazzes up a Ladino folk tune and gets more interesting as it goes along, with repeated dynamic shifts and a Genovese organ solo played through a wah for extra surrealism. The Hagiga Suite works its way from apprehensively circling atmospherics to a spine-tingling, spiraling Gurvich solo, Genovese’s nonchalantly hard-hitting solo winding down to a fade. A jazz waltz, Camelao pairs off Genovese’s machinegunning piano with Gurvich’s calming cool. The album ends with the reflective, moody Valley of the Kings, Gurvich running lithe variations on a catchy Middle Eastern pop hook as the band switches up the rhythm underneath. This is only a capsule and really doesn’t do justice to the kind of animated teamwork that Mela and Slavov build together, or to Genovese’s gritty blend of Argentinian and Levantine flavors, both which reveal themselves more and more with repeated listening.
Aram Bajakian plays lead guitar in Lou Reed’s band (here’s a clip of him playing Waves of Fear – it’s hard to imagine a better showcase for his chops). Bajakian’s own project Kef has just put out a fascinatingly eclectic, completely original, often hauntingly beautiful album of guitar/violin/bass instrumentals, many of which imaginatively reinvent traditional Armenian melodies. There’s a raw, spontaneous feel here – for the most part, Bajakian doesn’t go for extensive multi-tracking. The album makes a good segue with cutting-edge Balkan and Middle Eastern-flavored bands like Ansambl Mastika or A Hawk and a Hacksaw. Here Bajakian joins forces with Tom Swafford on violin and Shanir Blumenkranz on bass.
They open with a warmly fingerpicked acoustic vignette and then launch into some pyrotechnics: over a circular bass motif, Bajakian’s Neil Young-ish psychedelic sunspots give way to gritty no wave funk and some understatedly searing tremolo-picking. It’s the high point of the album, volume-wise. Laz Bar is a gypsy dance on the waves of the Mediterranean until the guitar gets funkier and bites down hard with a Ribot-ish blues solo as the violin swirls in and envelopes everything. The felicitously titled Sumlinian (Hubert Sumlin being one of the godfathers of funk) again works a circular melody, first carried by pizzicato violin before being turned over to the bass, guitar and then violin slashing their way through a Chicago southside of the mind.
Wroclaw, a Balkan-flavored rock tune comes together stately and wary out of a tricky intro, and eventually they swing it with a nice, matter-of-factly crescendoing violin solo, Bajakian following with some sweet Balkan blues – it’s the best song on the album. An upbeat Greek-flavored dance gets followed by a more pensive one, Swafford wailing over a brooding minor-key progression, Bajakian adding some teeth-gnashing yet terse Jeff Beck-style fills. From there they segue to some variations on the theme that eventually go absolutely haywire, back into a chorus that they hammer again and again, 80s no wave style. The album closes with a pensive, flamenco-tinted acoustic taqsim, a bass-and-guitar duet that sounds like a jam that worked out well enough to throw on the album, a wonderfully minimalist, mournful dirge and an equally captivating psychedelic piece that contrasts watery and spiky textures for a creepy vibe similar to the darkest stuff on Country Joe & the Fish’s first album. It’s out today on Tzadik.
Stark, often haunting, eclectic Brooklyn band Barbez have explored several different styles: Tom Waits-ish cabaret, Big Lazy-style noir soundtracks and most recently gypsy rock. The incarnation that played the Austrian Cultural Forum in midtown Thursday night is the most interesting yet. Along with the encores, the show brought to life the band’s the most recent Tzadik album Force of Light, a musical companion to a series of poems by Holocaust survivor Paul Celan. Celan wrote in German – his original language – and met with considerable criticism for it. His earlier work is graceful, meticulously constructed and haunted; his later poems are considerably gnomic. He asserted that language was a sanctuary of sorts for him, the only way to make sense of the horrors he’d witnessed, including the murder of his parents in a death camp. Celan committed suicide in 1970. This version of the band – leader Dan Kaufman on guitar and lapsteel, Peter Hess on clarinet and bass clarinet, Danny Tunick on vibraphone and marimba, Peter Lettre on bass, John Bollinger on drums, the Quavers‘ Catherine McRae on violin – played in mostly minor keys alongside Cassie Tunick’s matter-of-fact narration.
The first song, Shibboleth set the stage for what was to follow, a succinct, distantly klezmer-tinged, fingerpicked acoustic guitar theme that expanded with subtle variations: it made an apt soundtrack for the accompanying poem, an imagistic cautionary tale. Kaufman switched to Strat for the album’s title track – the accompanying poem is cynical, Sysyphian and death-obsessed, the instrumental slow, swaying and austere with a violin lead track in place of Pamelia Kurstin’s theremin on the studio version, Tunick’s vibes signaling a desperate stampede down to a troubled, repetitive outro. Aspen Trees, based on Celan’s dedication to his mother, was an understated dirge driven by clarinet and another strikingly terse, melodic central hook by Kaufman. Based on two late poems, Corner of Time maintained the plaintive atmosphere with a stately sway, everyone in the band adding off-kilter accents in turn.
Count the Almonds, an allusion to a popular ghetto snack, was the most overtly klezmer-inflected composition of the night, utilizing intricately tremoloing vibraphone passages to build crescendos to one final swell with the drums going full tilt, then down and out with surprising gentleness. Their take on The Black Forest was funky and enlivened with all kinds of dynamic shifts; Conversation in the Mountains – based on Celan’s only known prose piece, was a long, doomed cruise to nowhere. The last of the Celan pieces, Sky Beetle gave Hess a long runway to launch a gliding, hypnotic bass clarinet passage evocative of hypnotic avant-chamber ensemble Redhooker. They encored with a brightly apprehensive chase scene of sorts based on an ancient Roman Jewish melody, and a surfy, creepily phantasmagorical take on an Alfred Schnittke piece. The polyglot crowd in the auditorium wanted more despite the fact that after about an hour and a half onstage, the band had literally heated up the room.
Minamo is the Japanese term for the water’s surface. Beneath this particular surface runs an aptly titled Black River, occasionally bubbly and playful but often murderously powerful. This might be the best jazz album of the year, or the best album of the year in any style – the latest Tzadik cd by the duo project of Japanese pianist Satoko Fujii and American violinist Carla Kihlstedt is equal part avant-garde/new music, with frequent references to Japanese folk themes. With its often violent drama, much of it would make a killer (sorry) horror film score. It’s a double cd, one featuring subtly and cleverly improvised, often Satie-esque miniatures, the other a live recording far more expansive and dangerous. What’s most immediately striking is the practically telepathic interplay between Fujii amd Kihlstedt – one would think they were twins, or at least sisters. Both use the totality of their instruments, Kihlstedt adept at hair-raising overtones, Fujii raking the inside of the piano with what sounds like steel wool when she isn’t generating tonalities on the keys that literally run the length of the sonic spectrum. For those with the courage to take the plunge, it’s an exhilarating ride.
Everything here seems rubato – while each musician will often introduce a steady rhythm, they’ll both cut loose without warning, yet without losing their grip on the atmosphere at hand unless they do so deliberately. The opening cut, The Murmur of Leaves sets a brooding, pensive tone that will recur again and again, sometimes much more harshly. The third track, East comes skidding in, Kihlstedt’s violin like a banshee astride a steed from hell, moving to a full-on horror-film assault before ending on a surprisingly subdued if still disquieting note. A music-box theme matching midrange piano against pizzicato violin maintains the suspense, which lets up with a completely silly if equally evocative vignette, two girls struggling to open what must be one heavy window. Another lighthearted number is literally a musical lolcat – it’s hard to imagine a funnier or more evocative depiction of ADD. Elsewhere, a pretty, reflective tone poem grows menacing; Fujii glimmers ominously in the upper registers against Kilhlsted’s graceful glides; Kihlstedt plays what sounds like a rousing bagpipe tune against Fujii’s circular hypnotics; and finally, with a big, fluttery crescendo, the sun emerges triumphantly from behind the clouds! But that’s not til track twelve.
The second cd opens with the title track, which explodes with a crash and a scream (Fujii and Kihlstedt, respectively), moving hauntingly in the span of almost fourteen minutes to the most minimal, plaintive ambience punctuated dramatically with empty space, Kihlstedt finally leading a hauntedly resigned, swirlingly hypnotic climb out of the hole. The compositions here are all color-coded, though musically their colors don’t vary much from various shades of black and grey. Blue Slope scrapes and murmurs with rain-drenched sadness until Kihlstedt lets loose a couple of shrieks at the end, to which Fujii replies gracefully and sympathetically. Purple Summer is raw and aggressive, accentuated with vigorous vocalese. Red Wind is a game of tag, both instruments introducing playful, rather carefree motifs that sometimes make a strikingly jarring contrast with the darker tinges that rise up unexpectedly. Green Mirage – what’s up with these titles, huh? – masterfully works a slow crescendo into characteristically murky call-and-response. The concert concludes with a deadly snowstorm, Kihlstedt’s insistent wail signaling the start of the avalanche that they’re going to ride as it devastates everything in its path. Whew! There isn’t a rollercoaster around that can compare with this. Look for it at the end of the year around the top of the Best Albums of 2009 list here.
Perhaps the greatest thing about Jewish music is that it’s so well-traveled. In a sense, it could be said that it embodies the best of all worlds. The new collaboration between the “legendary trumpeter of the klezmer underground,” as one recent concert flyer described Frank London, and former Klezmatics accordionist/frontman Lorin Sklamberg certainly could be categorized as such. With contributions from ex-Psychedelic Fur Knox Chandler on guitar and effects, Ara Dinkjian adding gorgeously clanging, plinking and plunking textures on Middle Eastern lutes including the oud, saz and cumbus, and world music percussionist Deep Singh on tabla and dhol, the cd – recently out on Tzadik – alternates between boisterous and haunting reinterpretations of traditional Jewish liturgical music. Is this klezmer? Folk music? Jazz? Rock? Well, it’s all of the above: the melodies are as rustic as would be expected, but the playing, the arrangements and the production all draw deeply on what’s happened in the hundreds or maybe even thousand years since these tunes first saw the light of day. This is a beautiful and plaintive album and it also really rocks from time to time.
A couple of the tracks here turn worship into slinky, undulating Levantine dances, bouncing along on the beat of the tabla. Another couple have an upbeat dance feel and a Celtic tinge to the melodies. Still a couple more could be called shtetl ska, even if they go back long before ska was invented. The album’s twelfth track, a lament about being overrun by invaders, showcases London’s facility for channeling diverse moods both with and without a mute. After that, Sklamberg gets to breathlessly rattle off a Hasidic acrostic for a lyric while the band scrambles to keep up – and then Chandler throws in a big blazing arena rock solo where London then picks up the melody again, seamlessly yet exhilaratingly as middle-period ELO would do. The ambient final cut nicks the intro from Pink Floyd’s Shine On You Crazy Diamond, an expansive showcase for the whole band and especially Sklamberg’s rapt, incantatory vocals.
London’s playing is characteristically soulful, whether swaying through a sly muted passage or with half-balmy, half-ecstatic clarity. It’s also particularly pleasant to see how well Sklamberg’s voice has aged: it’s lower than it was in his Klezmatics days, the petulance of that era replaced with an unaffected, very welcome gravitas. This album ought to appeal to a vastly wider audience than your typical collection of traditional Jewish ngunim, while providing a decisive answer to the age-old question, does Rabbi Saul of Mozditz really rock? Answer: an emphatic ja.