Zebrina's Wandering Klezmer Hybrids Flourish on HAMIDBAR MEDABER
"People keep telling me what I do is klezmer, but I think what I do is jazz."
Canadian jazz pianist Jonathan Feldman had an epiphany. Raised on a steady diet of Miles Davis and his former bandmates' records like Chick Corea's "Light as a Feather", Feldman hadn't really explored the music of his family's Jewish faith. Growing up Jewish in Hamilton, ON and attending a Jewish elementary school and summer camp exposed him to some Israeli folk music and the liturgical music of the synagogue, but aside from the avant-garde offerings of clarinetist Ben Goldberg, he never checked out much klezmer music, sometimes called "Jewish Jazz".
Then the music of John Zorn hit him.
"I read about John Zorn on a news group. I went to see him and his band Masada at the International Festival of Contemporary Music in Victoriaville [a laboratory of contemporary jazz, rock, electroacoustic and improvised music that is the largest event for this music in North America]. I fell in love with that music ... It resonated so strongly with me, that there could be Jewish music and jazz music together."
That hybridization and cross-pollination resulted in Feldman's unique Toronto-based band, Zebrina, who will release their debut on Zorn's label Tzadik, Hamidbar Medaber (The Desert Speaks), on August 19, 2014.
Equal parts Klezmer, jazz, and jam band, Zebrina under Feldman's compositional guidance is a group that can go anywhere musically, and the music on Hamidbar Medaber surprises and delights with its lightning-quick twists and turns. The spontaneity is sometimes even surprising to Feldman. While in the studio, Feldman had loose ideas for tunes like "Higher Power," an Eastern-sounding tune that's squarely in the key of B flat, with a simple bass line that could almost come out of a Latin jazz tune. But during an improvisational section the bass suddenly drops out, creating a moment of free improvisation before the bass line returns beneath the soloist.
Similar moments anchor other tunes. The hypnotically funky "The Spirit Within", with its Fender Rhodes-stated melody and guitar effects that suggest electronica, starts off as a simple groove that evolves into an unscripted conversation between guitarist and pianist that almost rides off the rails before being rescued by the return of the groove.
The looseness of the plan is part of the plan. "The opening part of "The Guru's Advice" is in F and uses the Freygish mode (a Mixolydian scale with a flat 2 and flat 6)," Feldman explains. "In the bridge it goes to another popular Klezmer mode, Ahava Raba, which sounds like Dorian with a sharp 4. One thing I try to do is use different modes to build solos. Jazz modes, klezmer modes, hybrid modes, and the blues, I weave them all in. When your solo is peaking, you cue the second part of the solo form. Then the form goes to the next solo or back to the top of the piece. There are built in vamp sections, and any of those sections could be 4-8 bars long or could be open and anything can happen!
"For instance, if you listen to "Higher Power", there is a vamp under the solos. But as we go through the end of the first solo, when Joel comes back in on guitar there's a guitar breakdown that ushers in an R&B-ish groove that just happened that day! The rhythm section tailors itself to each solo."
"'Zebrina' is a play on the Latin name for the plant commonly called "wandering jew." Feldman feels like he's been wandering musically, searching for musical connectivity between his Jewish roots and Jazz. Not surprisingly, growing up in Hamilton, a city with a sizeable Jewish population, played a substantial role. "Especially at the Jewish summer camp I attended we were always singing Israeli folk songs, all the songs that people dance Horas to," he recalls. "Years of school and camp got Jewish music in my head. Then there was also a guy who had moved to Hamilton from Boston, and he decided to start a klezmer band at our synagogue. I played alto sax, and got involved in arranging for that band. It was a good community band of people at different levels, but we enjoyed getting together to play traditional klezmer music. During this time I read a book about the origins of klezmer and started writing my own jazz-infused klezmer music. I played in that klezmer band for a few years, and I didn't know anything about klezmer music before that. But after I got into it, Zorn's music made a lot more sense."