Barbez seek out inspiration between the cracks of Hasidic history.
Barbez, already a unique band to begin with, delves into a more specialized field of music on Bella Ciao. The Tzadik representatives from Brooklyn (where else?) take their klezmer-fueled post-rock to the times of ancient Rome and the WW2 Italian resistance, a chance to give the old Jewish traditions an extra shot in the arm. Not that they need it. John Zorn and his label have been tending to that garden for quite a while now, so there's no chance of the new interpretations of these old traditions getting lost.
To help get the theme across, Barbez invites the voices of Dawn McCarthy and Fiona Templeton to interpret the poetry of Pier Paolo Pasolini and Alfonso Gatto. Both men were intellectual giants in Italy and the inclusion of their lofty prose is not obnoxiously out of place in Bella Ciao. Honestly, the album is bursting with color and components as it is. Through it all, Barbez keeps a cool head and delivers a very compelling set of songs. It might not be appropriate to call it one of the top jazz albums of the year because the jazz elements are so thoroughly mixed with the other traits. But it is, without a doubt, a 2013 standout.
The group is more-or-less led by guitarist Dan Kaufman (their previous album Force of Light is actually under his name). Peter Hess handles the clarinets, Pamelia Kurstin waves to the Theremin, Danny Tunick hops from auxiliary percussion to piano and organ and back, Catherine McRae takes the violin, and Peter Lettre the bass while John Bollinger occupies the full drum kit. For Bella Ciao's purposes, they enlisted the help of Electro-Harmonix pioneer Dan Coates. Stir in the two guest vocalists and you've got yourself one monolithic piece of work. One does not need to be well-versed in the struggles of the Chosen People in order to take in Bella Ciao's glow.
"Et Shaare Ratzon", narrated by Scottish thespian Fiona Templeton, right away addresses the Resistance that the Jewish people were clinging to for dear life. The protagonist describes an intricate family escape from the Nazis, regularly interrupted by the line "And it was pure light". The following vocal track, "Mizmor Leasaf", is more sinister by comparison ("Et Shaare Ratzon" is still no picnic). Kaufman and McRae follow one another over the minor key while Templeton's brief recitation is almost swallowed by Bollinger's tom-pounding. Not that this doesn't do the song any favors. In fact it ratchets up the drama a great deal. Dawn McCarthy's vocals are mixed so deep within the other instruments in "Kamti Beashmoret" that she might as well be just that – another instrument. She's let loose on the title track, which sounds like a series of false starts for the first 15 seconds. After everyone gains their footing, it's tremendous. The band and McCarthy's voice sound so tense together that, when listening to it, you may find yourself thinking that fascism is a relevant threat yet again.
Kaufman's freezing compositions and his behavior as a conduit go a long way to make the instrumental tracks on Bella Ciao the tools for elevation that they are. Whenever Hess enters in on a reed, it's pure light. Whenever McRae follows one of Kaufman's piercing melodies, it's pure light. Whenever one of Kurstin's ghostly lines float into the room, it's pure light. Every time Barbez ascends in unity ... you get the idea.