Back when the 1980s turned into the ’90s, clarinetist extraordinaire Ben Goldberg led a small combo called the New Klezmer Trio that pioneered and perfected the combination of traditional, Eastern European Jewish folk music — or klezmer — with adventurous jazz. The three records they made over the ensuing decade were issued on John Zorn’s Tzadik Records and Zorn himself would soon adopt this concept in launching his long-running Masada series.
Now another combo, from Canada, is taking klezmer jazz and combining that with jam funk-jazz, a la Miles Davis, 1970. Toronto-based Zebrina, headed up by keyboardist Jonathan Feldman, is poised to release on August 19 its first album for Tzadik Hamidbar Medaber. It’s the logical outcome for the jazz pianist Feldman who long listened to early fusion jazz but didn’t really explore his Jewish heritage musically until he witnessed Masada firsthand, though he always dug Goldberg’s own excursions.
And so it’s fitting that Hamidbar Medaber gets a boost from Goldberg’s guest appearance on several of the tracks. Though Goldberg is brilliant in fitting right in with this five-piece electric band, nowhere is that brilliance more upfront than on “The Desert Speaks,” presented above in this exclusive stream. The song opens with a sublime clarinet soliloquy, soon gently supplemented by Feldman’s gurgling Rhodes and Bret Higgins’ electric bass, which provides a bridge to the vamp that makes up the meat of the song.
The song adopts a smoldering groove not unlike “Bitches Brew,” the song, and Goldberg’s clarinet — at this point, a contra alto clarinet — even evokes the wandering bass clarinet Bennie Maupin had played on that classic Miles tune. But unlike that classic Miles tune, there’s an acoustic blues slide guitar from Joel Schwartz playing right alongside Goldberg and Feldman, and though that comes from a completely different world, it sounds better than you think it would. Matter of fact, it sounds great.
If anything, “The Desert Speaks” shows that the ideas in Jewish jazz first put forth by Goldberg and expanded on by Zorn still have plenty of untapped potential. Feldman & Co. are finding interesting new twists on this style with their Miles-meets-Masada alchemy.