Sunday, May 5, 2013

Shofar - Ha-Huncvot (2013)


Mikołaj Trzaska - alto saxophone, bass clarinet
Raphael Rogiński - guitar
Macio Moretti - drums

Ha-Huncvot (2013)

By Ken Shimamoto

The existence of this trio, which released its debut album in 2007, speaks to the resurgence of Jewish Culture in Poland since the demise of communism there. Inspired by the pioneering work of ethnomusicologist Moshe Beregovski (whose work documenting indigenous musics in the Ukraine, Poland and Moldavia beginning in the 1920s is roughly analogous to that of John Lomax in the American South), the three musicians – guitarist Raphael Roginski, altoist and bass clarinetist Mikolaj Trzaska and drummer Macio Moretti – apply a free jazz spin to centuries-old Hasidic musical forms including negunim (wordless melodies) or freylakhs (meant to accompany dancing). In their intent, they are not unlike John Zorn’s Masada quartet, which plays Jewish themes as Ornette Coleman might have reimagined them ca. 1959, or Masada trumpeter Dave Douglas’ Tiny Bell Trio, a unit whose instrumentation Shofar mirrors, which reinterprets Eastern European melodies in a free jazz manner.

The three collaborators in Shofar come from diverse backgrounds. Guitarist Roginski, who divides his time between Warsaw and Tel Aviv, has also explored Jewish themes in the ensemble Cukunft, but his musical interests range from early blues players to ‘60s rock, from Bach to idiosyncratic American composers Harry Partch and Henry Cowell. Reedman Trzaska, who runs the Kilogram label with his wife, was a founder of the important ‘90s group Milosc, which released two albums with American trumpeter Lester Bowie. His collaboration with brothers Marcin and Bartolomiej Oles yielded the seminal 2002 album Mikro Musik. Drummer Moretti, a graphic artist and label impresario as well as a musician, was a member of the disco-metal fusion outfit Baaba, played bass in the grindcore band Antigama, and drummed in “Eastern country” unit Mitch and Mitch.

On the opening “I Can See By My Nose,” Roginski employs a brittle, wiry tone that contrasts with the vocalized sound of Trzaska’s alto. Behind them, Moretti provides responsive support, utilizing a varied percussion palette with sensitive restraint. After a lengthy opening exposition in which he and Trzaska intertwine sinuous lines for a couple of minutes, Roginski embarks on a solo in which he explores the contours of the melody in detail. Then Trzaska sings an agonized lament, based on the same intervals. Gradually they wind down, Roginski’s staccato bursts of notes ricocheting around Trzaska’s soulful wail.

On the first two of the three “Traditional Hasidic Melodies”, the two tonal instruments essay the themes in unison, then create abstractions around them. “Traditional Hasidic Melody III” has an almost blues-like feeling (except for the flat 2nd); one can imagine Don Cherry building a multicultural symphony around such material. Here, Roginski and Trzaska play the melody straight, only varying their dynamics while Moretti responds with a mounting intensity. On the closing “Diner With Giant,” Roginski strums rapid-fire choked chords while Trzaska unleashes keening multiphonics against Moretti’s splashing cymbals and clattering drums – an exorcism for the ghosts of the pogroms and the Holocaust. “Think Better About Germans” sounds like a prayer for closure – a somber and reflective theme, with Trzaska on bass clarinet.

There’s humor here as well. “You and Cookie = Happiness” features anguished, wordless vocalization that could be a carryover from Moretti’s grindcore days – or an invocation of Sesame Street’s Cookie Monster. On Ha-Huncvot, Shofar covers the whole gamut of human emotion with an attractive musicality that invites repeated listening.

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