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."
The public school music scene shaped the identity that Feldman still holds onto, that of jazzman. "In the high school I was in, there was a good arts program, and there was this really great teacher who became a mentor to me, who took over the jazz program in school and made it into a for-credit course that you had to audition for. It ended up where you'd go to school and at 9 AM you'd have jazz band every day! This teacher also organized the Hamilton All-Star Jazz Band. He'd get gigs for the band. There was this spirit of hanging out with other musicians and going to gigs and stuff like that."
And then real life and the need to find work that didn't involve being in a band happened, and Feldman, a life-long computer enthusiast, found himself getting a degree in computer science at McGill University and heading to MIT for grad school, to tackle the issues associated with computers' perception of music, particularly in the area of music transcription. Something happened in Boston though, and he found himself drawn back into playing music instead of trying to get a computer to recognize it.
"I'd always wanted to be a player, but didn't have the confidence to do music full time. In Boston, there were constant concerts from the biggest names in jazz. Amazing jam sessions at places like Wally's. And concerts at places like Regattabar, where you'd hear famous jazz musicians like Chick Corea, McCoy Tyner, and John Scofield. Not much opportunity to hear those folks in Hamilton, except at the yearly Toronto Jazz Festival. I started going out to hear jazz all the time. I wanted to practice and be a musician while still being a student."
Serendipitously, around that time a situation arose that would lead to a connection with his musical hero, John Zorn.
"A friend of mine from MIT invited Zorn to come to the Media Lab to do a workshop with some students who were working on 'musical instruments of the future'," Feldman recalls. "This was after I had left MIT, but Zorn came for the three days and worked with Ben [Vigoda] and the other guys. Ben told Zorn about who I was as a composer. So when it came to getting in contact with Zorn for myself I just reminded him that I was a friend of Ben Vigoda. He liked my first CD and he asked me to be in touch about the next one. But he didn't react much at first. I woke up one morning, and I had this instinct that I had to get on [Zorn's label] Tzadik. I asked him if we could record with Ben Goldberg. He thought that was a great idea and shot off an email to Ben, and within an hour Ben was interested in the project and it all came together. It was a shocking kind of thing. When I first met Ben Goldberg, it was shocking to think I was going to play with someone like that!"
Jewish music, jazz.... Where do they connect? Perhaps on another plane. Many musicians report feeling a spiritual connection when improvising, and Feldman is no exception.
"At this stage in my life, I can still lead a synagogue service and read Torah, but music is my biggest connection to Judaism and spirituality,' Feldman muses. "It's a way that I can combine the Jewish connection that was I looking for. A closeness to God or a closeness to some higher order of the universe. "The Spirit Within" is about the universal guiding principles. Referring to "The Guru's Advice," someone asked, why was it a guru, not a rabbi? "I've always been fascinated by India, and I think of it as more of having a spiritual guru figure who you go to with the hard questions of life. Why are we here? The songs reflect the things I've been going through as a person... spirituality is one of those things that's very important to me."
Jewish spirituality and music, North American jazz and a larger worldview all come together on Hamidbar Medaber. Perhaps Zebrina's wanderings will forge a new path to greater sonic enlightenment.
Photo Credit: Nir Bareket