Deriving their group name and inspiration from the foundational text for the Kabbalah, the book of Jewish mysticism, KETER is the first recording by the band Zohar and is released by Knitting Factory Records as part of their new Jewish Alternative Movement series (JAM).
However, AAJ readers who are acquainted with the Knitting Factory’s reputation for leading edge modern jazz or are hoping for KETER to be along the lines of Masada, Naftule’s Dream, or other similarly minded outfits are prepping themselves for disappointment, confusion, or both.
This is not to say that KETER is a poor recording or is not of interest to modern jazz fans. In fact, KETER is exceptionally varied, and will reward careful, attentive, repeated listening with revelation of it’s subtle and multicoloured hues. But one should not approach this disc anticipating strictly a “jazz” recording.
However, none of this is too surprising as Zohar is co-led by pianist/composer Uri Caine. Releasing two wonderful discs for the late, lamented JMT label ( TOYS and SPHERE MUSIC ), Mr. Caine’s subsequent releases have challenged, baffled, dumbfounded, and amazed listeners with a handful of idiosyncratic and innovative recordings based upon Mahler, Wagner, and turn of the 20th century New York City pop music (all of which have been released by the equally enigmatic Winter & Winter label). Mr. Caine’s penchant for the unpredictable, if not unusual, is continued with Zohar.
The other co-leader is vocalist/composer Aaron Bensoussan. Born in Morocco and trained by his father and master musicians as a cantor in the Sephardic liturgical tradition, Mr. Bensoussan is blessed with a clear and pleasant voice that gracefully and dexterously interweaves itself as another instrument in the musical fabric provided by Mr. Caine’s piano (electric and acoustic) and remaining band members Adam Rogers (guitar), Emmanuel Mann (bass), Gilad (drums, percussion), Lefteris Bournias (clarinet), and DJ Olive (samplers).
The formatting for KETER is somewhat unconventional. The odd numbered tracks (there are 19 tracks total) are basically soundscape mix vignettes constructed by DJ Olive while the even numbered tracks are songs by the band proper and are a mixture of traditional tunes and new compositions by Messrs. Bensoussan and Caine.
As mentioned, this is not a “jazz” album but the level of musicianship and creativity should prove itself of interest to the intrepid jazz aficionado questing for different sounds. At the risk of using easily misinterpreted labels, KETER is best described as “world music” or “fusion”. But this is in a global or pan-cultural sense as opposed to an ethnocentric one. That is, the mingling of ethnic influences which originated in the Middle East, spanned across the Mediterranean through North Africa and Spain, but eventually brought back to the Middle East (the Sephardic tradition begins with Spanish Jews who fled to North Africa and the Middle East during the Spanish Inquisition) and ultimately extending across the Atlantic into Latin and North America is clearly illustrated here at several levels. The use of both acoustic and electric instruments, played by band members from various parts of the world, and the alternation between band pieces and the “pseudo-ambient” or “trip-hop” interludes of DJ Olive provides engaging contrasts, if not contests, between modern and ancient cultures. All in all, a dizzying whirl that wanders from the surreal to the hallucinatory and one which might be perfectly at home in the collections of listeners who thrive on the Real World and Shanachie labels or who actually like sundried tomato bagels with roasted pepper and garlic hummus.
How to summarize Zohar KETER in a down to earth fashion? A great question. Perhaps as the best dance band you never heard at a Jewish wedding? Or maybe as the jammin’est lounge band you could hope for at the Tel Aviv Hyatt Regency Suites? Or possibly as the best praise band one could hope for at the local synagogue?
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. KETER should simply be appreciated as the inevitable artifact of compressing thousands of years of rich musical heritage into a late 20th Century context. What once was new long ago is made new again, the circle is complete. http://www.knittingfactory.com/