Jazzical Jewish Culture

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Ty Citerman, guitarist; Ken Thomson, bass clarinetist; Ben Holmes, trumpeter; Adam D. Gold, drummer

The shadow of John Zorn’s Radical Jewish Culture imprint on his Tzadik label looms large over Bop Kabbalah, from guitarist Ty Citerman. That the music is being issued as part of the series is not too obvious to point out, because there’s a certain self-determining solipsism that seems to be at work here.

Citerman is one of the founders of Gutbucket, a band that’s essential for both their musicianship and their sense of irreverence. This is his debut as a leader, and while there’s plenty of strong music making from him and his ensemble, the success of the music is constrained by the concept: Citerman is exploring his Jewish roots via music, in the style of the Radical Jewish Culture series and—the thought is inescapable—doing so in order to get the record released on Tzadick. Whether this was a direct strategy or a context (music like this gets released, so let’s give it a try), is unclear, but the slightly stiff, slightly didactic quality to so many of the tracks is unmistakable.

There’s a lot of time spent stating this Semitic scale or that traditional rhythm, sieved through the aesthetic of a band that can swing, groove and rock. The point is proved, but there are too few moments when the group gets beyond the argument and just starts playing, where the music making transcends the self-consciousness of the style. “Snout” reaches the kind of heights that have the listener lost in the music, but the consistent experience is to observe what the band is doing, rather than enjoying it.

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Alon Nechustan, pianist; Donny McCaslin, saxophonist; Chris Lightcap, bassist; Adam Cruz, drummer

Much more successful and completely enjoyable is Alon Nechustan’s new CD, Venture Bound. Nechustan is one of the finest pianists in contemporary jazz, with a discography that ranges from 2012’s superb Words Beyond to the electronic experiments of Dark Forces (2012). The new disc is something of a departure, or better yet an addition, to his style, which exemplifies both current ideas in jazz and through depth of the roots from which they grow.

Like Citerman, Nechustan uses music with a clear Jewish sound, yet unlike Citerman there is no sense of ideology on his new album. Phrases, scales and harmonies are interpolated into the overall compositions and arrangements. There are also no arguments about jaw-rock-punk, etc, this is totally a jazz CD, and Nechustan’s music is for the group to play and then mine for material for their solos.

The pianist has developed a distinctive, rich sense of harmony. He seems like he’s constantly substituting alternate chords in his own arrangements, and the music modulates frequently, always with logic and purpose. This gives the heads of tune a highly improvisatory feeling, and the accompaniment for the solos is complex enough to sound like Nechustan had worked it out, painstakingly, with pencil on paper.

Highlights are sufficiently abundant to be meaningless—everything sounds great, every moment leads the ear to the next, each track demands more listening. The run in the middle of the record of “Dark Damsel,” “Sneak Peak” and “Haunted Blues” is particularly strong, and McCaslin matches Nechustan for expressive power, imagination and fluidity. Terrific all around.