Greg Wall / Aaron Alexander / Frank London / Lorin Sklamberg

December 2, 2009


Tzadik TZ 8141

Greg Wall’s Later Prophets

Ha’orot: The Lights of Rav Kook

Tzadik TZ 8137

Retro Boppers who take their improvisational cues from the music of the 1950s, and Classic Jazz players, who try to replicate 1920s New Orleans Jazz, are veritable late comers when compared to the musical traditions wedded to Jazz on these memorable releases. Reedist Greg Wall, trumpeter Frank London and vocalist Lorin Sklamberg put their musical smarts to work on ecstatic sounds related to the Hasidic Movement, which originated in Eastern European in the 18th Century; tinged with shtetl-popular Klezmer music developed even earlier; involving concepts, lyrics and melodies going back to Talmudic pre-history.

London and Wall, co-leaders of The Hasidic New Wave as well as a legion of side projects, and Sklamberg, lead singer of the Klezmatics, have serendipitously developed solo discs which depend on the voice and words. But that’s where the comparison ends. Wall, who may be the only recording and touring Jazz musician who is also an ordained rabbi, mostly based his 14-track CD on the poetry of Rabbi Avraham Itzchak HaCohen Kook, aka Rav Kook (1865-1935), Israel’s first chief rabbi. Reciting Kook’s verses in both Hebrew and English is Rabbi Itzchak Marmorstein. An expert on the mystic teacher’s work, Marmorstein broached this idea to the saxophonist and clarinetist after hearing the Later Prophets perform at Toronto’s Ashkenez Festival in 2007. The prophets are drummer Aaron Alexander, equally proficient as a committed Jazz drummer, pianist Shai Bachar and bassist Dave Richards.

Also a 14-track CD, tsuker-zis is more universalistic. Tunes sung by Sklamberg and played on his accordion, deal with simkhes, secular celebrations, Lubavitch nigunim, popular melodies and dances, many of which were written when Tin Pan Alley was still a forest. Yet the backing is modern and eclectic enough with London on trumpet, flugelhorn, alto horn and harmonium; Knox Chandler on guitar and electronics; Ara Dinkjian on oud, saz and cümbüş; and Deep Singh on dhol and tabla. The rhythms added by Singh sometimes suggest that if the sounds on Ha’orot are influenced by Rav Kook, then the sounds here are as strongly influenced by Ravi Shankar.

Less a davening cantor than a religious leader giving a sermon, Marmorstein’s modest but self-confident delivery has to be carefully balanced by the band’s arrangements. For instance “Renewal” is somewhat like those 1950s Jazz’n’Poetry recitals with long-lined legato tongue flutters from Wall, understated rim shots from Alexander, swift cadenzas from Bachar underpinning Marmorstein’s recitation and finishing with a triumphant fralicher buzz from the saxophonist. “I Am Filled With Love for God” on the other hand swiftly moves from andante to presto, with the theme borne on Richards’ bass, until the palpable elation in the rabbi’s voice is matched with the bassist’s dramatic rhythmic plunks

Alternating between Hebrew and English, sometimes in subsequent sentences, Marmorstein’s theatricism is the perfect fit for “The Whispers of Existence” and “From a Distant World”. On the first, the lines are intoned and whispered on top of shattering cymbal pressure, while mournful bowed bass sounds suggest an otherworldly if not Messianic location. On the later the ecstatic cries for freedom and liberation are complemented by split tones from the saxophonist and Bachar’s comping.

These two, like many of the other tracks, are enlivened by extended instrumental tags, but a glimpse of an equally valid way to handle the material is offered on the tracks without words such as “Nigun Ha’Rav #1”. Still based on a Rav Kook melody, the presentation is more slippery, as Wall seems to be extending more modern Israel anthems with double-tongued lines, while working in double counterpoint with the pianist, as the bassist clanks his way down the scale.

Both Wall and London have experimented with modifications of the expected Jewish-Klezmer presentation in CDs with add-ons like the all-African Yakar Rhythms. So at times it appears as if London is aiming for the perfect Carnatic-Electronic-Judaic fusion on his CD. But Sklamberg’s overwhelming cheerfulness keeps the proper Yiddishkeit in the project and negates any drift towards pretentiousness. .

“Increase Our Joy” for instance, with lyrics taken from the Book of Esther, sounds like what would have happened if that queen had hooked up with Bob Marley at the Peppermint Lounge. With subtle reggae syncopation creeping into the performance, Sklamberg pumps his accordion’s bellows, London tongues expressive triplets and others add spirited call-and-response voices plus hand-clapping. Could the word “shimmy” have crept in among the different languages used?

“Heed Not the Accuser” and “Elijah the Prophet Bought a Red Cow”, which follow one another here, not only conflate Yom Kippur and Purim holidays, but also reach for a mythical Indo-European-Sephardic sound. The first features the vocalist’s melismatic reading of the tune built on the flowing pulse provided by tabla strokes and droning harmonium. With a geographical mood swing, vocals on the second piece are infused with a child-like elation, definitely Ashkenez, and backed by banjo-like twangs and organ-like pumps.

Elsewhere distortion-heavy guitar fuzz tones are as prominent as suggestions of liturgical songs from Arab countries, and electronic wave forms share space with jerky march-like rhythms from the alto horn plus finger-styled guitar phrasing. Ecstatic presentations or not, some of the ever-shifting instrumental textures on certain tunes seem to mate Orientalized melodies, Latinized brass grace notes à la Herb Alpert and chugging sing-along choruses. “One, Two, Three, Four”, the climatic track, contains first-class blowing from London, echoing wind-tunnel-like pulsations and delay; and vocals that may have been patched in through a megaphone. Perhaps the Baal Shem Tov and Sun Ra are both dancing at this simcha.

Although London, and most definitely Wall, may be Orthodox, their sounds are anything but – leaning more towards the inclusiveness of Reform Judaism. Object lessons in Jewish cultural extension – music division, both CDs are worth seeking out no matter your personal creed.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Ha’orot: 1. Ha’tzofeg Le’Tovah (The One Who Seeks the Good) [English Version] 2. Renewal 3. From a Distant World 4. Take Me Out to the Overflowing 5.Nigun Ha’Rav #1 (Rav Kook’s Melody) 6.Shofar 7.Return of My Spirit 8. Nigun Ha’Rav #2 9.The Whispers of Existence 10. The Wellspring of Existence 11. Freedom 12. I Am Filled With Love for God 13. The Four Fold Song 14. Ha’tzofeg Le’Tovah (The One Who Seeks the Good)[Hebrew Version]

Personnel: Ha’orot: Rabbi Greg Wall (tenor and soprano saxophones, clarinet, shofar and moseno); Shai Bachar (piano); Dave Richards (bass); Aaron Alexander (drums) and Rabbi Itzchak Marmorstein (spoken word)

Track Listing: tsuker-zis: 1. Sukkah of Branches 2.A. Blessings Without End 3. Our Life is Sugarsweet 4. Our Parent, Our Sovereign 5. Increase Our Joy 6. The Days Between #1 7. The Lord Sent His Servant 8. The Days Between #2 9. Heed Not the Accuser! 10. Elijah the Prophet Bought a Red Cow 11. Greeks Gathered Against Me [Intro] 12. Greeks Gathered Against Me 13. Mighty Blessed, Great, Prominent, Glorious, Ancient, Meritorious, Righteous, Pure, Unique, Powerful, Learned, King, Enlightened, Exalted, Brave, Redeemer, Just, Holy, Merciful, Almighty, Omnipotent is Our God 14. One, Two, Three, Four

Personnel: tsuker-zis: Personnel: Frank London (trumpet, flugelhorn, alto horn, harmonium); Knox Chandler (guitar and electronics); Ara Dinkjian (oud, saz and cümbüş); Deep Singh (dholki and tabla) and Lorin Sklamberg (vocals and accordion);