On his first few releases, in duos and trios with Susie Ibarra and William Parker, Assif Tsahar proved himself a talented tenor man. More recently, he is showing his composing side, and a strong side it is. His string-heavy New York Underground Orchestra played a beautiful set at this year's Vision Festival with the leader conducting; that performance has been set to disc on another recent Hopscotch release.
The Zoanthropic Orchestra is a longer-standing ensemble than the string orchestra, and on Embracing the Void it shows a stronger hand from the composer. Tsahar's 60-minute suite is, as suggested by his liner notes, a sort of self-portrait in sound, drawing on auditory memories from his childhood to recent years. The notes are brief reminiscences, more snapshot than storyline, but they suggest a lifetime of listening. The 14-piece band delivers a strong performance, and while individual soloists are credited, this is an ensemble record. Tsahar's charts owe a spiritual debt to Charles Mingus (another composer of portraits). As with Mingus' large ensemble work, the interplay under the solos is often as exciting as the solos themselves. The group had played for over a year before recording this, their first disc, and it shows in their shared communication.
That said, there's plenty of talent contained within. Curtis Hasselbring, Steve Swell and Reut Regev make for a powerful trombone section and the excellent Taylor Baynum Ho is one of the three trumpets. Ori Kaplan, Alex Harding and the leader are in the five-horn sax section, backed up by the always-solid Tom Abbs on bass and ever mindful drummer Andrew Barker. Rounding out the rhythm section is pianist Craig Taborn, who delivers the strongest performances on the disc.
In the notes, Tsahar says that as an adolescent he was diagnosed with zoanthropy - the belief that one has turned into an animal. Whatever such a delusion might stem from, it does perhaps suggest an instinct and a zeal for living. As a player and as a composer, Tsahar shows passion. If that's animalistic, so be it.