A striking meeting of Latin Sephardic traditional music and jazzy Klezmer.
Edgar Steinitz: Roots Unknown – OA2 Records – 45:40 (1/19/18) ****½ ;
(Edgar Steinitz; clarinets/ Bonnie Birch; accordion/ Jeff Busch; percussion; Julian Smedley; violin, viola/ Wayne Porter; drums/ David Friesen; Hemage bass/ Jay Thomas; flugelhorn, tenor sax, flute, trumpet)
By day, jazz clarinetist Edgar Steinitz works as a rehab physiatrist at hospitals in the Tacoma, Washington area. However, for years he has pursued a music vocation on the side. His musical odyssey began in New York City, where he took in the vibrant jazz scene as a youth. He then relocated to the Pacific Northwest where he has practiced medicine for more than 20 years while taking music lessons from David Friesen. Our readers should not assume that this is a vanity recording by a musical amateur, for the playing is accomplished by both the leader and his more well-known associates.
The concept of Roots Unknown is unusual: a tribute to an exotic musical and cultural tradition that derives from the Sephardic Jewish Diaspora in South America. There is an ample serving of more recognizable Klezmer inflected music, in which accordion and violin set the stage for fervent clarinet wailing. In fact, we are bowled over by the intro of To Life from Fiddler on the Roof, a boisterous chorus of all the typical instruments of the Shtetl. But then there is the unexpected shift to a percolating, distinctly Latino percussion accompaniment. Wayne Porter (drums) and Jeff Birch (percussion) keep these caliente rhythms going throughout the session. Steinitz recalls his mother’s injunction in her native Surinamese dialect “Opo – seiki – srefi” (Get off your ass and shake it.” In fact, the odd convergence of styles works surprisingly well. Both Afro-Latin and Klezmer traditions share a certain wonky yet melancholic celebration of life. If there isn’t an exact Spanish translation of schmaltz, the expressive essence of the word is deeply rooted in the Hispanic aesthetic.
What really makes this record stand out are not the fairly conventional tunes, but the clever arrangements and the outstanding solo performances. As to the former, it can be assumed that the Doctor’s long time teacher, David Friesen is a major contributor. The bassist contributes many agile solos and keeps the groove from centrifugal distraction.
His fat quarter notes on Yiddish Blues nicely support a sharp ensemble and violin trumpet interplay of considerable complexity. The sound engineer must have been especially taken by the accordion of Bonnie Birch; in every featured ensemble piece, the instrument cuts through the mix with stunning clarity. An instrument given to excess, it is faultless here and combines affably with the violin of Julian Smedley. Both of these musicians are new names for me and receive high commendation.
As to the leader’s playing: I listen to the clarinet, my favorite reed instrument, with great pleasure but also exacting standards. Steinitz makes a most favorable impression throughout. He favors the warm chalumeau register, crisp articulation, a persuasive collection of Klezmer effects as well. He doubles on the bass clarinet on the lovely tune Perseverance, making the most out of the instruments deep growl.
However, the standout soloist is “special guest” Jay Collins who plays flugelhorn, flute tenor sax, and trumpet all with characteristic melodic finesse and consummate technique. If you wish to efface yourself on a debut recording, by all means enlist the help of this sideman who melodic virtuosity on all instruments suggest that he could play Schubert on the didgeridoo. Yet even Collins plays with a measure of restraint with nothing is over-asserted and we are mercifully spared the “extended technique” of the recent Jazz saxophone idiom.
There are couple of tunes which are in-artfully simple with too much oomph on the downbeat. It seems to be a self-imposed challenge for the group to make a silken-purse out of a sow’s ear. For the most part they succeed in honoring both traditional material and the highest demands of the jazz art form.
The beauty of the whole project is underscored by the leader’s valedictory May Love Find Its Way to You played with sublime economy as a clarinet solo. It is a perfect minute-and-a-half coda to a fine performance.
In a university library, I once stumbled upon a stack of Ladino language newspapers published at the end of the 19th century in Istanbul. The language of the Sephardic Jews of Andaluz , sometimes called Djudeo- Espanol, looks like this:
I was amazed to be able to read an old kind of Spanish written in Hebrew letters. In a life of scavenging for literary exotic, this was a highlight. This recording affords me some of the same thrill of discovery. In a crowded genre of World Music, this seems to carry an exotic feel which comes not from added flavor but from deep consideration and hard-won musical discipline. I am happy to recommend this disc strongly.