Mark Feldman, Uri Caine, Greg Cohen and Joey Baron have all played integral parts in John Zorn's many explorations of Jewish improvised music. All four have won acclaim for the distinctness and flexibility of their sounds, but here they work in a setting that defines the meaning of traditional.
With a group such as this, it would be impossible to explore any theme, new or old, without bringing flares of insight. Secrets finds them interpreting a variety of niggunim, the often wordless prayer melodies sung by sects of Hasidic Jews, and they mix a jazz sensibility with slight, indefinable touches of the avant-garde to create a quartet that speaks many languages in one voice.
A distinct warmth and color is brought to a variety of songs by the group, from Caine's bright, swinging keys on the opening "Lubavitcher Nigun," to Cohen's gentle, adroit bass on "Kel Adon." As the instrument most commonly found in traditional Klezmer, Feldman's violin sings with unparalleled distinctness. Plaintive at times, alternately tinged with darkness and comedy at others, his sound is almost unmatched. Meanwhile, Joey Baron's understated percussion gives shape to the atmosphere with whisks of brushes and cymbals.
Most of the album focuses on slower, more ruminative melodies, allowing the performers space and time for inflection and reflection. "Z'Chor Dovon," in particular, is full of transcendent beauty. It opens with a heartfelt melody on violin, backed by a lone piano for one recitation before the entrance of bass and drums. Feldman brings a mournful touch here, which is balanced out by a kind of hopeful humor in Caine's keys.
"Chabad Nigun," "Satmar Rikud," and "Z'Chor Hashem" are joyous masterpieces of up-tempo jazz, with Feldman and Caine testing the lines with modernistic chords and occasional, dissonant bow tweaks. But at the faster paces, these songs also attain a certain joyous folk dance quality that seem to pull gently but persistently at the toes. It's music with roots in many places, from the wedding hall to the jazz club. Baron's solos here are distinctly jazzy, but he peppers the toms with an unrestrained ebullience that speaks beyond setting.
For the closing "Moditzer Nigun," Cohen's nodding bass paves a hypnotic path for Caine's graceful keyboard steps. Deeply moving, filled with whispers of the blues, there is a tone of respectful nostalgia here that shines light on the best sides of tradition. The duet epitomizes the sound of a group that brings rich, emotional playing no matter where or how they play. Those enchanted by the beauty of Secrets will, no doubt, be asking Tzadik for more.
Personnel: Mark Feldman: violin; Uri Caine: piano; Greg Cohen: bass; Joey Baron: drums.