Jay Vilnai's Vampire Suit: Gaze At Your Omphalos (2005)
No, I don't know where the name "Vampire Suit comes from, except perhaps that "vampire brings to mind Transylvania (and Bela Lugosi), but also Eastern Europe and the folk music of its people. In fact, there are musical connections among the entire swath of lands and peoples from the Black Sea to the tip of Arabia. The two pictures of a Neolithic Stonehenge-like structure on the front and back covers add to the attempt to convey the ancient and the mysterious (as does the title), but the music does not sound to me like it comes from Northern Europe. Within this realm, Jay Vilnai and his group have created something that has so many influences as to defy labeling, but in which this or that influence is audible, while managing to drag it just over the line into the jazz arena.
Gaze at Your Omphalos is very much like single malt Scotch Laphroig, which even to Scotch lovers (like yours truly) is a learned pleasure. If you like klezmer, to pick one influence, you will probably appreciate much of this album. If the world/folk music scene is not to your liking in general, then the ethos of this music will probably not click with you. Vilnai and his vampires get high marks from me for their utter unpredictability from track to track, their sheer joy they get from and give to the music and the various textures and sounds that emerge.
Technically, Gary Pickard (on soprano saxophone and clarinet) is the most interesting soloist, managing to feel free within the strictures of a given scale and rhythm. Just behind is Skye Steele, whose violin playing is many times amazing. The two also play a lot together behind Vilnai, winding around each other. Vilnai himself is no wizard of the strings (at least on this record), and he's the weakest improviser due to the fact that he remains very much tied to the phrasing of the theme at hand, making his solos sound rambling. However, he makes up for this in his leadership qualities and the overall vibe.
I was hard pressed at times to maintain interest in the proceedings, mostly because of the sameness within a given tune that seemed to go on too long. There is some real beauty here in "A Great Light and "Lullaby (which sound similar), and adding the ethereal voice of Panetierri to "Ophelia is a welcome touch. One just cannot be prepared for the onslaught that is "Queen of Sheba, with its heavily distorted guitar and rock grooves. Overall, this album is worth a look-see, and I will be most interested in Vilnai's next offering.
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Track Listing: The Visit of the Queen Of Sheba (5:22), A Great Light (10:54), Moonbow (6:50), Ophelia (7:57), Fana (6:47), Lullaby (10:19), Campfire Dance (7:08), Diana (5:40), Baklava (5:44)
Personnel: Jay Vilnai - guitars; Skye Steele - violin; Gary Pickard - soprano sax, clarinet; Mike Savino, bass; Kevin Garcia, percussion; Greta Panettieri, vocals