Long before hip-hop turned sampling into an art form, before “postmodernism” became a label slapped on anyone whose music borrowed eclectically from other cultures and traditions, Jewish music was evolving through a process of accretion, taking scales from this neighbor, rhythms from that one, harmonies from yet another, making a virtue of the necessities of the diaspora.
That process has continued to this moment as contemporary Jewish musicians unblushingly put the hyphens in klez-jazz.
If you want to hear a couple of examples, you needn’t go any further than West 67th Street this week, when Makor hosts Rashanim, a Jewish band that plays avant-garde jazz, and Shtreiml, a klezmer band led by a blues-rock harmonica player.
Jon Madof, the 29-year-old Philadelphia guitarist who leads Rashanim, spoke to the issue directly in an e-mail last week.
“I think the idea of musical purity in any context is an illusion that has never really existed,” he wrote. “That being said, I still think there is such a thing as ‘Jewish music,’ it’s just rather hard to define. My wife and I have been in Israel for the last few weeks, and the music I’ve heard has been incredibly diverse, from Carlebach to pop to chasidic to ‘oriental.’ That all fits into the realm of what I would call Jewish music.”
Madof’s own influences range widely, from Hendrix to the Pixies, from Wes Montgomery to Naftule Brandwein and Dave Tarras.
Rashanim reflects that sonic tapestry. On its inaugural CD on John Zorn’s Tzadik label, the band plays Carlebach and klezmer tunes as well as originals by Madof in a swirling, jaggedly rhythmic style that echoes the range of those influences and then some.
“I’ve tried to deal with some concrete elements of Jewish music — traditional songs, scales, rhythms, etc.,” Madof explained. “But often I find myself coming up with an idea that doesn’t really have those elements, which somehow still sounds Jewish to me. I’m not sure why, but as the band grows and gets deeper into our ‘sound,’ I’m worrying about that less and less and just going for the truest expression possible.”
Rashanim’s performance on Wednesday night will probably be more of the same.
Madof promised that the trio, which includes the leader on guitar, Shanir Ezra Blumenkranz on bass and drummer Mathias Kunzli, will be playing material from the current CD and new stuff from the record they are working on now.
Madof was the product of a very nearly secular Jewish upbringing who now explores the synagogue scene in Park Slope with great enthusiasm. By contrast Jason Rosenblatt, the 30-year-old harmonica player who leads Shtreiml, was raised in a Modern Orthodox home and is still traditionally observant. Is the difference reflected in the music their bands play?
There is a difference in their approaches to Jewish material, with Rashanim’s post-bop jazz approach making the relationship to more traditional material a bit more “outside” (as jazz musicians used to put it) than Shtreiml’s fairly straight-ahead, hard-swinging klezmer-cum-blues-harp groove. But does it come from their upbringings? Hard to say.
Rosenblatt, who lives in his native Montreal after many years in Israel, started out as a jazz pianist and plays with a group that by his description is “influenced heavily by the Miles Davis Quintet sound of the late ’50s.” While that is a long way from the swirling free-jazz-inflected electric material that Davis essayed later, it’s not exactly Disneyland-Dixieland either.
And Rosenblatt’s original conception of Shtreiml wasn’t all that far from what Madof has been doing.
In an e-mail last week, the harmonica player explained, “Originally, when Shtreiml was founded I had wanted the group to take a jazz-based approach to klezmer and Jewish music. However, as I began listening to older klezmer recordings, through the suggestion of fellow bandmate Josh Dolgin, I began to appreciate more and more the older forms of arrangement and accompaniment. I felt that the quartet format and choice of instruments, harmonica, accordion, upright bass and drums would give us a slightly jazz sound. There wasn’t any specific need at that moment to delve into modal jazz in order to give us a modern sound.”
Rosenblatt didn’t even pick up a harmonica until he was 16 and already playing piano proficiently.
“My father, who used to play when he was younger, had a few laying around the house,” he wrote. “I picked one up and started playing the ever popular ‘Oh Susannah.’ My mother and father heard me and quickly pulled out a few of their old Sonny Terry LPs. That got me interested in playing country blues-harp.”
For a trained musician the learning curve wasn’t too steep and within a few days Rosenblatt was playing Terry standards like “Walk On.” His playing still bears some of the mellow melodiousness of Terry, but the unmistakable influences of Paul Butterfield, John Popper and Howard Levy are evident as well.
Adding harp to klezmer, however, was something of an accident. Rosenblatt has been an active participant in KlezKanada, the northern sibling of KlezKamp, since 1997 and it was there that he began playing klez harp.
“It was 1998, I was at KlezKanada, and there weren’t enough pianos to go around,” he recalled. “I had brought along some harmonicas and decided to try and figure out some of the klezmer and chasidic melodies that were being taught. I knew it was possible to play all the notes of the chromatic scale on the diatonic harmonica because of Howard Levy’s already well-publicized techniques. It was a matter of sitting down and working.”
He owes the guts of Shtreiml to KlezKanada, too. That was where he met Josh Dolgin (accordionist, perhaps better known as DJ Socalled of “Hip Hop Khasene” fame) and Rachel Lemisch (trombone). His rhythm section, bassist Thierry Arsenault and drummer Ariel Harrod, were part of a jazz combo he had been playing with at McGill University.
The next thing they all knew they were performing at the opening of a local Jewish film festival and recording a CD. The band is now working on its second album, which puts them on an equal footing with Rashanim.
Shtreiml will perform with the Moshav Band on Saturday, Aug. 9, at 10 p.m. Rashanim will perform on Wednesday, Aug. 13, at 9:30 p.m. as part of a four-band program that includes the excellent Lemon Juice Quartet. Makor is at 35 W. 67th St.; tickets for both evenings are $12. For information, call (212) 601-1000.