Lead by chameleon pianist Uri Caine (this guy does it all: jazz, Mahler, Tin Pan Alley, you name it), and featuring the diverse talents of Aaron Bensoussan, a Moroccan/Sephardic vocalist and DJ Olive, member of illbient DJ crew WE, Zohar offers up a stylistic mix like nothing I have ever come across. This, in many ways, is diaspora rendered sonically. What they do on the sprawling Keter is bring together a number of traditional Jewish songs and songs written around Jewish themes, and provide them with settings that collectively reflect the strengths and musical interests of the various musicians. Thus “Ladino Medley” is given a recognizably Eastern European sound, though one that is infused on the one hand by all the Northern Africa that pours out of Bensoussan and the jazz piano approach Caine (which pushes that instrument further than the role of providing rhythm, to acting as complementary voice). In favour of slavish stylistic purity, what they capture is the dancing excitement of the music. That excitement is maintained as they continue globe-trotting, through the Middle East cum New York, via mariachi (on the traditional “A Woman of Valour”) and Cuban rhythms (“When Will it Be Built”). Though wherever the group turns they are grounded in Bensoussan’s distinctive vocal approach and Caine’s reading of the whole proceeding through the idioms of jazz. While there are moments when the group does not sound as entirely unified as a listener might expect them to be, it is clear that this is a very high-minded experiment that allows for a great deal of latitude and individual expression, at times at the expense of a single dominant vision. It is the kind of experiment that makes me wish for an opportunity to seem the group perform live in order to experience the musical dynamics that they are so obviously working through.
Interestingly each of the 10, generally shorter, odd-numbered tunes on Keter are given over to DJ Olive. Olive seems to have participated in the original recording sessions then returned to that material and mined it in order to create a series of transitions, some of which are nothing more than ambient sounds and simple repeated rhythms. It is clear from the Keter‘s package that each of these DJ tracks has a relation to the Kabbalah (the most well-known Kabbalistic symbol, the Tree of Life, is used on the back cover, while the various pieces are named after the Kabbalah’s various elements: “Crown,” “Wisdom,” “Love,” etc.), as if an attempt is being made to knit the various stylistic elements together by way of the Jewish mystical tradition. In many ways, this is a fitting way to proceed given that mysticism is always about moving beyond the everyday and the accepted towards the deeper, eternal connections that link people and place together through time. Zohar then become an unlikely group that has come together to explore the deeper, universal and persisting connections that bind them together.