Rashanim: Healing Music for Unrighteous Times

Guess what? Rashanim has recently released what will undoubtedly stand as one of the best albums of 2009 in The Gathering.

Guess what else? Rashanim has been making incredible music for the better part of this decade.

One more thing: you are not the only person who has, unfortunately, not heard (or heard of) this band. For all the right reasons, changing that should become a priority in your life. Trust me. I hope and expect to hear many more noteworthy new albums in 2009, but I sincerely doubt I will come across another effort as profoundly effective and moving as this one.

So, who is Rashanim? They are a jazz trio operating out of New York City who describe themselves on their website as a “Jewish power trio: Rashanim (‘noisemakers’ in Hebrew) combines the power of rock with the spontaneity of improvisation, deep Middle Eastern grooves and mystical Jewish melodies.” Led by guitarist Jon Madof, the band also includes bassist Shanir Ezra Blumenkranz and drummer Mathias Kunzli. They record for John Zorn’s label Tzadik (http://tzadik.com/) and are categorized in its “Radical Jewish Culture” series. (Being neither Jewish nor radical, I still find this concept rather rad, and to be certain, some of the very best music in the world is being created on Zorn’s middle-finger-to-the-industry label.)

I first encountered them in 2003 when they appeared on two of Zorn’s Masada special-guest projects, Voices in the Wilderness and The Unknown Masada. (Both of these sets are enthusiastically recommended, and they feature diverse acts ranging from Fantomas to Eyvind Kang and Jamie Saft.) I excitedly picked up their eponymous debut (also released in ’03) and was not disappointed. In 2005 they experimented further with Zorn’s songbook, releasing Masada Rock, an effort that lived up to its name and featured the always amazing Marc Ribot on multiple tracks. This band was quite obviously around to stay, and it couldn’t get any better than this, I thought. I was wrong. In late 2006 they released Shalosh,which showcased Madof’s infectious surf guitar thrash attack, but also represented an ever-evolving compositional prowess. This effort boasts several acoustic guitar tracks that retain the intensity of the electric workouts. Madof was finding an ideal balance between the traditional inspiration of his source material and the dexterous, even restless proficiency of his skill set: he is a player equally comfortable invoking the Temple or the mosh pit. The songs are serious and complex, yet they are accessible and addictive; they are polished to the extent that all potential excess is eliminated and each composition says precisely what it means to convey utilizing minimal time for maximum impact.

So…what does it sound like? The music is impossible to isolate or explain simply, in part because it incorporates so many disparate influences, using them all as a point of departure. Madof is quite clearly deeply grounded in tradition (both religious and musical), but his invocation of other places and times are very rooted in a modern sensibility. Klezmer? Ancient Jewish music? Jam-band? Surf guitar? All of the above: it’s definitely jazz and it is certainly imbued with a distinctively Jewish sensibility. Above all, it rocks.

If they can only, somehow keep pace with the consistent excellence of the previous efforts, I thought, what a miracle it would be. That was then and this is now, and I’m here to proclaim it from the mountaintop: miracles happen and Rashanim’s The Gathering is cause for joy bordering on disbelief. This, truly, is as good as contemporary music is capable of being, and the latest release is their best work yet.

Like Zorn’s Masada albums, many of the songs have biblical or Hebrew titles (sometimes both), and for the most devout or scholarly (particularly the scholarly devout) these songs may accrue added levels of significance; but like much of Zorn’s catalog, the individual tunes can — and should — be appreciated simply for their superior craftsmanship and the almost inexpressible joy they provide. Like Zorn, and like many of the best composers, the melodies are effusive: instantly identifiable after only a few listens yet strikingly distinctive. This music challenges but rewards abundantly.

On The Gathering Madof never plugs in (it’s an all-acoustic affair) but if anything, the sounds are more varied and ambitious than ever. For instance, Madof breaks out a banjo for multiple songs, to outstanding effect, and the others flesh out the sound with the inspired use of glockenspiel, melodica and jaw harp. There is a warmth and intelligence enveloping all 12 of these cuts, and one marvels at Madof’s ability to constantly create space for himself while creating music that is lush without being remotely cluttered. A few of the tracks rather defy description and simply must be heard. For one, “Elijah’s Chair” is a toe-tapping duet between banjo and melodica. Who else does this? Exactly no one. And this is not a random experiment of sounds for novelty’s sake; this is very serious stuff.

On one of the stronger tracks, “Deborah”, the intensity is ratcheted up as Kunzli smashes the drums while Madof works a mean slide over multi-tracked acoustic (and banjo) strumming. The groove is in full effect on “Elijah’s Chariot”, and Madof continues to impress with his acoustic guitar proficiency (it would be difficult to imagine any fan of, say, Dave Matthews Band or Phish or Medeski Martin and Wood not digging this: if the better jam bands out there are unspooling novellas on the stage, Rashanim is crafting short stories: equally compelling, but with a clever, if strategic economy of notes). Another standout is “Kings”, featuring some of Madof’s most inspired writing/playing thus far: the song is calmly insistent, but not urgent; there is palpable energy that eschews feedback or effects to convey a feeling. The tracks that close the album, “Jeremiah” and “Joshua” take the proceedings to another level, that other place the best art is capable of connecting us with. Over a chanted invocation (in Hebrew), Madof uncorks yet another inventive and enticing melody: it sounds like something that could be played in a place of worship, yet it retains a bluesy, almost somber edge. The final song slowly builds up as a guitar/banjo conversation, and then the drums and bass come in, ratcheting up the tension until it finally breaks with a joyous, sing-along outro. The band is firing on all cylinders.

So…healing music? What is that supposed to mean?

Well, the great news is that we should properly relish the runaway democratization of content, with artists (like John Zorn) creating their own labels to more effectively disseminate their unfiltered (and unsanitized) vision. This is happening with all art, but musicians have arguably taken most advantage of the opportunities inherent in the increasingly viable DIY model. This, of course, is a very positive development for both artists and their audience. That said, we are still very much living in a corporate-sponsored country where suit-wearing weasels determine the bottom line based on a focus-grouped free market. For an artist to survive in this era is not an inconsiderable achievement; for an artist to thrive, defiantly crafting an original voice and sharing that vision with people, is cause for genuine celebration. That a musician like Jon Madof is fully committed to expressing his gift of music is enough to restore one’s faith: in music and the people who make it.

RATING 9 / 10