Jazz pianist and Zebrina founder Jonathan Feldman thinks he has a dilemma on his hands: “People keep telling me what I do is klezmer, but I think what I do is jazz.” I’m one of those people who think you can have it all. Not only should you be allowed to have your cake and eat it too, but we should all be entitled to second helpings. More isn’t always better, but sometimes it’s nice to have the option. The music of Feldman’s brand new band Zebrina is just as much Jewish as it is jazz. You don’t rub elbows with guys like Ben Goldberg and John Zorn without picking up a few klezmer tricks along the way. And you don’t grow up listening to Miles Davis and Chick Corea without some puting some fusion in your bop. Feldman has gone through all that only to find himself signed to Tzadik, the label run by his Jewish jazz hero Zorn. Zebrina isn’t exactly Masada, but the Masada band was probably not something Feldman was interested in replicating. His band manages to groove in the Live Evil-era Davis pocket while keeping their melodies in the Jewish scale (I finally learned the name of this mode with the flatted 2nd: Freygish). Zebrina’s debut album Hamidbar Medaber (The Desert Speaks) lands as a startlingly accomplished piece of work, as if the band had been woodshedding for half a lifetime. They inject just the right amount of fusion crunch into the mix to offset Feldman’s lyricism. And most importantly, they can pull it all off showing little-to-no effort along the way.
Jonathan Feldman may have assembled the band wrote all the songs, but Zebrina is a polyphonous racket guided by many. Front and center is clarinetist Ben Goldberg, a collaboration that Feldman suggested and Zorn promptly arranged. Joel Schwartz sticks mainly to the electric guitar, a noisy approach at that, but covers the resonator as well. Max Senitt, Juan Carlos Medrano and Bret Higgins give this unique ensemble the unique rhythm section it deserves. Higgins in particular has a strange approach to his instrument. Sometimes he plays the melody alongside Goldberg, as on opener “Chant of Ages”. Other times, as on “Revolution in My Mind”, I realize through earbuds that I haven’t a clue what he’s doing. Holding court in the center is Feldman himself on a variety of organs (Rhodes, Wurlitzer and Hammond B3). Their collective sound manages to be both tense and inviting. No melody and/or jam is too good for you, the listener.
“Chant of Ages” is an ideal start for Hamidbar Medaber. Everyone’s strength is on display, including Feldman’s melody that somehow jumps up and down the scale while inviting itself into your memory. Goldman plays it as if it were “Three Blind Mice”. And if “Higher Power” and “Breath of Life” are similarly playful, then closer “Freedom Groove” flirts with dirt. Goldberg breaks out a lower register reed to kick off the vamp — a duty normally reserved for a synthesizer or bass guitar in a funk band. But on tracks like “The Spirit Within”, we find Goldberg’s clarinet drifting in the middle of Schwartz’s atmospherics thanks to pitch-bending and reverb. “Spirit”, “The Guru’s Advice” and the title track are less melody-driven than they are mood-based. That’s not to say that Goldberg is sidelined and that melody is forsaken altogether. Everyone stays in their roles while altering their approach. “The Desert Speaks” in particular is powered by a sultry rhythm that would normally get one kicked out of a synagogue.
Zebrina is another one of those bands where, since they nailed the combination of Jewish jazz so well the first time around, I vicariously worry about the sophomore slump that may follow. But then again, the Tzadik roster is full of artists who are too busy contemplating their next three moves to care whether or not their debut was too good. The key is to just forge ahead. That’s what Feldman and Zebrina did to get here and hopefully that’s what they’ll continue doing.