The pervasiveness of the Jewish music tradition is a remarkable thing, something that has only become known to a larger public in recent years through John Zorn's tireless efforts to expand the boundaries of the music and show its truly international flavour. With his own Masada projects, Tzadik label, and Radical Jewish Culture imprint, he has demonstrated that not only is the music alive and evolving, but it can incorporate musical influences from places as dissimilar as the streets of Havana and the boulevards of West Hollywood.
And speaking of Havana, Cuban ex-pat percussionist Roberto Juan Rodriguez is a player who was exposed from an early age to the seemingly disparate influences of Cuban and Jewish music. Resettling in Miami in his early teens, he discovered not only the rich Jewish culture embedded there, playing at Yiddish theatre companies and Bar Mitzvahs, but that these displaced Eastern Europeans, many of them Holocaust survivors, were deeply intrigued by the music he and other equally-uprooted Cubans brought to the same area. And so the seeds were sown for an intercultural blend of ethnic Cuban forms and the Jewish music tradition, culminating in Baila! Gitano Baila! (Dance! Gypsy Dance!), Rodriguez's second release exploring the juncture between these apparently dissimilar styles of music.
With a group including violins, cello and bass along with woodwinds, trombone, trumpet, accordion, organ and percussion, Rodriguez has a broad palette to work with. And considering he only turned to composition in recent years with his first album, Danzon de Moises (Tzadik, '02), he proves to be a remarkably developed writer with a strong sense of counterpoint. His charts may be complex, with strings swirling around accordion rhythms and eloquent clarinet and trumpet lines, but the infectious groove is never far from the surface. In fact, the title of the album is wholly appropriate because, despite its far-reaching motifs and rich blend of music from as far abroad as Turkey and Bulgaria, this is first and foremost music that instinctively sets the body in motion.
And while some of the elements of tragedy and sadness that imbue the Jewish music tradition are unquestionably present, there is much delight to be found as well. "Wolfie's Corner," in fact, manages to be both sad and joyful at the same time, with its compelling groove and impassioned solos from violinist Sam Bardfield and trombonist Curtis Hasselbring creating a dichotomy that seems to perfectly articulate the concept of the diaspora.
Other tracks, like "Hadida," blend street rhythms with an almost chamber music sensibility. It is, in fact, these almost schizophrenic yet uncannily integrated elements that make Baila! Gitano Baila! such a refreshing and unique record. Rodriguez, already a proven entity as a percussionist with diverse artists including Ruben Blades, Dave Liebman and Paul Simon, proves himself to be a composer/arranger of consequence; and kudos to Zorn for providing a culturally open forum for artists from all walks and persuasions to create true world music.
Visit Roberto Juan Rodriguez on the web.
Personnel: Matt Darriau (clarinete, kaval bulgaro, flautin irlandes, trompeta china), Curtis Hasselbring (trombone), Ted Richman (acordeon, b-3 Hammond-Leslie), Meg Okura (violin), Sam Bardfeld (violin), Mary Wooten (violincello), Brad Jones (bajo), Roberto Juan Rodriguez (percusion)
Very special guest: Roberto Luis Rodriguez (trompeta, bombardino, trombone de piston)