The First Basket
(Tzadik; US: 24 Feb 2009)
(Tzadik; US: 19 May 2009)
File this under “Two more reasons John Zorn’s Tzadik is one of the coolest record labels around” and “can’t an hombre kvetch?”
We’re only halfway through 2009 and Tzadik has seen the release of two of the most exciting jazz recordings of the year, courtesy of a surprising source.
Cuban-born percussionist Roberto Juan Rodriguez grew up in Miami and, like many children, was heavily influenced by the music of his surroundings. Many kids absorbed the Cuban and Puerto Rican rhythms of south Florida’s communities. Others lapped up the strong Caribbean flavor running through the city. Still others took to Dade County’s burgeoning hip-hop and club scenes. In Rodriguez’s case, however, the music that moved him originated from an unlikely source: Jews. As a teenager in his father’s bands, Rodriguez played his fair share of Jewish weddings and bar/bat mitzvahs. He became enamored with the sounds of Miami’s large Jewish population and eventually provided music for a local Yiddish theater. Over time, Rodriguez began to envision the union of Jewish folk aesthetics with the Cuban music of his ancestry.
Fast-forward a dozen or so years and John Zorn has finally allowed Rodriguez’s vision to become a reality—and we’re all better off for it. In February, Tzadik released Rodriguez’s brilliant soundtrack to The First Basket, a documentary film about the history of Jews in basketball. Featuring both traditional acoustic and modern electronic instrumentation, the soundtrack is a tasty stew of Sephardic melodies and Cuban rhythms filled with generous chunks klezmer, club, and blues. Then, last month Rodriguez did it again on Tzadik with the release of Timba Talmud, another exciting fusion of Jewish and Latin music. The album’s opening track, “La Hora,” a play on the traditional Jewish dance song, is a blistering, infectious jam. Rodriguez provides an astounding percussion foundation that makes you wonder if he has more than two hands. And his bandmates readily fall in line with excellent violin, bass, and horn lines.
Tzadik is certainly no stranger to the fusion of traditional Jewish music with other genres. The label’s Radical Jewish Culture series has almost single-handedly revived/created an (secular) interest in traditional Jewish music (and not only among folk music aficionados, but with those in the jazz and rock worlds as well). Rodriguez certainly isn’t the first artist on the label to combine Jewish and Latin music. In 2007, David Buchbinder’s brilliant Odessa/Havana showed that klezmer melodies and Cuban rhythms were not mutually exclusive. And Zorn’s own Masada groups have merged countless styles and aesthetics. Tzadik’s experimental juggling of genres and styles has also seeped into the mainstream jazz world as a renewed interest in the melding of diverse styles can be seen far and wide.