[22 January 2014]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
All it takes is one musician to smash two styles of music together to show us just how much they have in common. In the case of klezmer and Cuban music colliding, David Buchbinder is the one who is pulling it off successfully. The debut album by his band Odessa/Havana, a direct and appropriate name, received lots of good press when it was released on the Tzadik label in 2007. L.A. Weekly put it very well when they said that Buchbinder’s music “makes the mesh seem like the most natural thing in the world.” That’s a good way to gauge the success of a hybrid, hearing how effortless it sounds. David Buchbinder and Odessa/Havana are back for round two on Tzadik. And no matter what your opinion of Cuban, klezmer, or trumpet jazz music may be, you can’t objectively call Walk To The Sea a sophomore slump. The album has too much crackle inside to soggy up a good thing.
Odessa/Havana is a pretty large group—fourteen including Buchbinder—making the laser-focused sound they produce all the more impressive. If there’s one thing that’s not that surprising, it’s how the components of the sound are divvied up. The melody inherits the Jewish traits and the Cuban knack provides the foundation. This is not a hard science though, things are bound to interchange, like on the opener “Coffee Works” where the rhythm section’s fits and starts are more klezmer-y than Cuban. An instrument like the oud, this time played by Demetrios Petsalakis, tends to stay in the eastern hemisphere. This doesn’t keep Buchbinder, Petsalakis, and pianist/arranger Hilario Durán from trying though. Durán is Buchbinder’s right-hand man through Walk To The Sea, co-writing two tracks and writing one by himself, the sprawling “Adventura Judia”.
Almost half of Walk To The Sea features the vocalists Michal Cohen and Maryem Hassan Tollar, and the presence of vocals helps to make the cross-cultural ambitions more complete. The lyrics come from the Ladino lexicon, otherwise known as the Judeo-Spanish Romance language. If it’s become a dull cliche to say that “you learn something new every day”, then I suppose I stand humbled. As far as the vocal performances themselves go, Cohen and Hassan Tollar don’t hog the mix. Their voices are an additional instrument, likely helped by the language barrier thereby avoiding unnecessary distraction. My five-year-old asked what they were singing, and I didn’t have an answer ready (for the record, she liked their voices).
Musically, Odessa/Havana can snap back and forth between barren deserts and salsa clubs at a moment’s notice. They certainly have the percussion moxy to convince us all, with batas, congas, dumbeqs, rigs, frame drums, and just plain drums. The melodies follow similar though not identical patterns, full of flatted seconds and smoothed-over eighth-note patterns. John Johnson is just as much a skilled soloist as he is a melodica foil for Buchbinder, providing Odessa/Havana’s sound with saxes, clarinet and flute. His solo for “Landarico” is a stunning display of how one can Birdify Jewish jazz without batting an eye. What do I mean? Hear for yourself.
If David Buchbiner and Odessa/Havana were able to snag critical success in 2007, then Walk To The Sea proves that they just might be one of those bands that will strike three cherries in a row the next time they pull down on the lever.