Koby Israelite – Blues From Elsewhere (2013)

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“I don’t want to bore people to death,” declares Koby Israelite. “My music has always got some edge, and it needs to have a groove.” The composer, arranger and multi-instrumentalist Israeli-born offspring to Balkan Jews, Israelite trained as a classical pianist as a child, played drums in a punk band as a teenager, and after he mastered the guitar and various woodwind instruments, an accordionist in a Gypsy band showed him how to play a squeezebox like a world-class pro. Before long, John Zorn was asking him to participate in his Radical Jewish projects, including arranging and performing most of the instruments on one of Zorn’s own records. Isrealite himself made records for Zorn’s Tzadik label, four in all.

Isrealite not only picked up a lot of instruments, but also a glut of music styles, from klezmer to jazz to avant-garde to Slavic folk music, and he loves to mash ’em all together. For his fifth album Blues From Elsewhere, the American music forms blues, rock, bluegrass and country are added to the mix. He throws his own arsenal of accordion, guitars, banjo, drums, percussion, mandolin, electric bass, bouzouki, clarinet, soprano & sopranino sax, piano, keyboards, flute and vocals into the effort. The results are often unpredictable, occasionally humorous but never contrived, and it certainly won’t bore you to death.

The excitement takes no time in getting started. Though less than two minutes long, the rockabilly-meets-Bulgarian wedding oddity of “Johnny Has No Cash No More” is a toe-tapping, grin-inducing delight. The Appalachian gallop of “Why Don’t You Take My Brain And Sell It To The Night?” with vocal by Annique is a real charmer, too, and I’ll bet Norah Jones and the Little Willies wished they had thought of this song first. A four part suite inventively recycling the same melodic fragment takes us through accordion-inflected acoustic blues rock (“Blues From Elsewhere”) to Italian folk played over metal guitar riffs (“Accordion Is The New Guitar”) to the floating, ethereal and acoustic “The Dreams Thief” and the Balkan jug band strain “Crayfish Hora.”

If that’s not enough excitement, well then how about the countrified rock over a fast polka that comprises “Bulgarian Boogie,” the electronic scratching/Slavic folk whiplashing into heavy metal within ”My Way The Right Way,” or the Slavic rapping over spooky, far-out Delta Blues and funk on “Two Colonels”?

Isrealite can compose with disparate styles in mind, but he saved perhaps his best stuff on this album for the interpretations of other people’s iconic songs. Both “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and “Kashmir” jerk listeners between background music at a Casablanca café and booming arena rock, the former containing a hip hop passage tossed in for good measure and the latter leveraging the exotic Armenian duduk of Tigran Aleksanyan. Since the Led Zeppelin song was always intended to be derived from Arabic music, that selection was a logical one, but the Dylan song took more ingenuity to pull off. Luckily for Isrealite, he’s got loads of that.

Like Elliot Sharp’s own blues excursions, Blues From Elsewhere illustrates what a fertile ground the blues can be for avant-garde artists looking to flex their creative muscles into unfamiliar territory. The thing is, Koby Isrealite makes it seem so familiar, like these crazy hybrids were meant to be.

Blues From Elsewhere goes on sale April 9, by Asphalt Tango Records. Visit Koby Israelite’s website for more info.

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S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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