From The Belly of Abraham
Knitting Factory Records KFW 294

Real fusion is the point of this session, not the sort of wanking jazz-rock to which the term has been reduced through misuse. Mixing two different traditions, it features five committed members of the Jewish Alternative Movement trading riffs and rhythms with three African percussionists.

While hardly spectacular, the results at least suggest new avenues of exploration for those who refuse to be shackled by tradition. Part of the time the Hasidic New Wavers’ admixture of jazz, funk and Eastern European melodies lock steps into the Sabar throb of the trio of Senegalese drummers. Other times, trying to metaphorically mix Ashkenazi and near Ashanti culture produces as queasy a repast as spreading Romanian-Jewish chopped chicken liver onto Ethiopian Injera bread.

Ascribe the successful moments to the fact that neither band is made up of musical fundamentalists. Far from being Hasids, all of the Wavers also play pop and jazz in such combos as The Big Head (trumpeter Frank London); Babkas (drummer Aaron Alexander); and the Screaming Headless Torsos (guitarist Dave Fiuczynski and bassist Fima Ephron). Additionally, while Yakar Rhythms leader Aliounne Faye may be descended from Griots, he and his associates from Dakar are now all American residents who have worked with dance troupes and such pop stars as Stevie Wonder, Peter Gabriel and Macy Gray

Instructively enough, the true meeting ground for both groups are tunes like “Yemin HaShem”, a 19th century Hasidic nign (spiritual melody) and “Bread of Affliction” which bring out the inner James Brown super bad funk in each of the bands. On the later, composer tenor saxist Greg Wall sounds as if he’s channeling Brown bandleader/saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis, while guitarist Fiuczynski moves between Hendrixian psychedelic and Stax/Volt chunka-chunka rhythm guitar riffs. With all four drummers consistently flinging out different beats, the end product speaks to the close relationship between St. Louis, Senegal and East St. Louis, Mo. Adding Jamie Saft on organ, the former mixes its Eastern European theme with New Thing style improvisations from Wall and echoing Sabar pulses.

More arty, London’s “Spirit of Jew-Jew” claims to honor the classic freedom recording and jazz musicians of the 1960s and early 1970s. Although it’s one of the few times Ephron’s bass beat can be heard clearly, the honored players used this amalgam of funk and African rhythms in a more sophisticated manner. Sure the sound is swinging enough, but the pretty horn blending suggests that this could be labelled New Thing Lite. At least the band made the effort and paid homage.

Of course as London’s “Sea of Reeds” suggests, there are still other blends that can be explored. Here building on top of a distinctive African Libou beat from the percussionists, Fiuczynski produces some road house guitar licks. Later on he comes up with a sound that suggests what would happen if a Bluegrass mandolin player improvised on an Ashkenazi melody.

Not that everything works here. There are times on other tunes where the blend merely sounds as if a Wolof percussionist had suddenly joined a bar mitzvah band. Also there’s some confusion in the packaging. Tracks #4 and #6 are labelled differently in booklet and back of CD. Listening determined that the listing below is probably correct.

Although all the sounds here initially came from Africa, they still could have been better integrated. But as an initial adventure in the Afro-Semitic Diaspora, this disc is a fine first effort.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Waaw Waaw 2. Yemin HaShem* 3. Bread of Affliction 4. Sea of Reeds^+ 5. Frydginator 6. The Sacred Line 7. Bo-Peep% 8. Spirit of Jew- Jew

Personnel: Frank London (trumpet); Greg Wall (tenor and soprano saxophones, clarinet); David Fiuczynski (guitar); Jamie Saft (organ)*; Fima Ephron (bass); Aaron Alexander (drums, m’bung m’bung thiol, djembe^); Aliounne Faye (n’der, m’bung m’bung thiol, tama+ djembe%); Abdoulaye Diop (m’bung m’bung thiol); Ousmane Sall (m’bung m’bung)