“Radical Jewish Culture” Redux

Yoshie Fruchter convincingly distills the essence of jazz improvisation into his rock-meets-klezmer workouts.

Following my ardent endorsement of Rashanim (the great trio who have just released what may well be the best album of the year:, I would be remiss to not also mention a new name we can hope to hear much more from in the years ahead. Yoshie Fruchter, also a guitarist, released his debut on (John Zorn's label) Tzadik entitled Pitom in late 2008, and it is as indispensable as any of the Rashanim releases (”Pitom”, incidentally, means “suddenly” in Hebrew). It is similar in that it’s (mostly) rocking jazz with an explicitly Jewish sensibility, but where Madof’s traditional roots are always discernible, Fruchter sounds somewhat like a precocious younger brother who found the stash of ’70s prog rock albums and never put them down. In a (very) good way. Indeed, the kinship with the great King Crimson outfit of the early-to-mid ’70s is undeniable, not merely because both bands feature the same instrumentation (drums, bass, guitar and viola): there are songs on Pitom that recall some of the more adventurous tracks from Red and Larks’ Tongues in Aspic.

Check it out:

But this is not to imply that the music is a postmodern reduction of those progressive milestones (brilliant though they are); Fruchter is also very adept at distilling the essence of jazz improvisation into his rock-meets-klezmer workouts:

Pitom is, like Rashanim’s work, categorized under Tzadik’s “Radical Jewish Culture” series. Apparently that moniker has, at times since its inception, proven to be problematic. John Zorn, aside from being a genius, is nothing if not controversial, and this ability to provoke is a constant (and probably necessary) tool in his arsenal. Put another way, there is always a method to his “madness”.

So, what is Radical Jewish Culture, exactly?

At the Tzadik site, John Zorn talks about his rationale for the provocative and loaded depiction:

The series is an ongoing project. A challenge posed to adventurous musical thinkers. What is jewish music? What is its future? If asked to make a contribution to Jewish culture, what would you do? Can Jewish music exist without a connection to klezmer, cantorial or Yiddish theatre? All of the CDs on the Tzadik RJC series address these issues through the vision and imagination of individual musical minds.

Much controversy and discussion has arisen over the Great Jewish Music series and on several occasions this has taken the form of a personal attack on me, my work, my sincerity and my integrity. Clearly the inclusion of music with no overt Jewish content may seem out of place in a series dedicated to Jewish music and it is very gratifying to experience the power the word (or the image) continues to exert on the human spirit. The operational word here is “music”—if I had titled the series Great Jewish Composers perhaps there would have been no further discussion.

It seems important to mention that the name Radical Jewish Culture was chosen with serious deliberation. There is little question that the contributions of Franz Kafka, Mark Rothko, Albert Einstein, Walter Benjamin, Lenny Bruce and Steven Spielberg have all been embraced as central to Jewish culture in the 20th century. The logical question that arises is—is there Jewish content in their work? Well, at times yes, at times no—and in using the term “great Jewish music” I am raising that question—albeit a bit tongue-in-cheek, and not without a small tip of the hat to the Art Ensemble of Chicago.

Kudos to Zorn for helping young artists like Madof and Fruchter reach an audience.

Bottom line: this is exciting and formidable new music. This is music that requires imagination and intelligence on the part of the listener (those with deficiencies in either department need not apply). Mostly, this is music that is not intended to massage the air around you while you focus on other things. It is music that challenges and enriches. It asks questions and also provides answers. Yes, it even manages to make the world a better place, and when you get down to it, that’s what art is all about. Right?

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