Composer John Zorn continues his remarkably productive 2008 (at least seven releases to his name so far) with Volume XX of his Filmworks series. Zorn assembled these pieces for the soundtrack to a documentary about Sholem Aleichem, the 19th century Jewish author whose character Tevye inspired Fiddler on the Roof.
In the liner notes, Zorn writes that he initially had misgivings that the score might just turn into traditional klezmer music. But director Joe Dorman reassured him that the film needed a sound that spoke as much to the New World as to the Old, and even forbidding the use of clarinet.
The music emphasizes complex arrangements full of head-bobbing polyrhythms. To accomplish this, Zorn taps familiar faces with Carol Emanuel on harp and Rob Burger on accordion joining the Masada String Trio. The result is an Eastern European Jewish sound that touches on an almost Latin groove, played by a tremendously talented modern chamber group.
The album opens with the upbeat "Shalom, Sholem!" Accordion, harp, and distinctly fiddler-sounding strings take turns passing the lead line. The initially menacing "Beyond the Pale" finds itself propelled along by Cohen's bass and then buoyed by Emanuel's graceful glissandi.
Whether it has been with his original Masada quartet or newer projects like Electric Masada or the String Trio, Zorn has always emphasized the conversational aspect of Jewish music. The solos here are certainly brief, with no track reaching five minutes, but there's a group dynamic as the other players compliment soloists Burger, Mark Feldman and Erik Friedlander during "Jewish Revolutionaries."
"Mekubolim" opens with humming strings and accordion beneath a harp line out of fairy tales, which gives way to Friedlander's cello, Feldman's violin, and eventually Burger on accordion as the other players ebb and swell beneath. A beautiful restatement of the theme with violin and harp unison; pushed from beneath by accordion and bowed bass, makes this a real highlight.
It all adds up to music that can evoke a wide range of subtle emotions. There is a streak of black humor running through the album that is meant to parallel the tone of Aleichem's writing. Whether in song titles such as "Lucky Me, I'm an Orphan!," the grooving pizzicato strings of "Mamme Loshen," or Feldman's Tango-style violin scratches on "Portable Homeland," it is clear that this is playful music.
But the pick of the album may be the final piece, "Talking Through Oblivion," which moves off Burger's potent accordion playing, a great Feldman solo, and Friedlander's most fiery performance on the album. It's the kind of statement that should make people want to see how else Zorn can bring this special group together. And it also demonstrates once again that Zorn, no matter what he's done before, continues to turn genre and expectation on their heads.
Personnel: Carol Emanuel: harp; Rob Burger: accordion; Mark Feldman: violin; Erik Friedlander: cello; Greg Cohen: bass.