Approximately once a year I’ll choose one album to recommend to my fed-up or uninitiated friends who insist nothing new is happening in music. You know these people, you may be one yourself. Even I catch myself, on occasion, yearning for an era I didn’t even live through, when music really mattered, and people paid attention, and the stakes were at once clear and more attainable, etc.
And then I wake up and realize, as an alto sax player who did live in that era once decreed, Now’s the Time. Today is always a great time to be alive and any of us are blessed to be surrounded by artists doing what the true artists have always done. In short, expressing themselves without regard to endorsement or esteem –not that there’s anything wrong with either, not to mention a steady paycheck, if one’s on offer — for the most pure if simple reason: doing otherwise would be an affront to their gift, an insult to their discipline and integrity.
I was introduced to Mathias Kunzli via Rashanim, for whom he plays percussion. And who is Rashanim? They are a jazz trio operating out of New York City describing 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.” 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. 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, and Kunzli is the one providing the fluid, furious foundation.
I’ve also had the occasion to share a stage with him and see the way his imagination and body relate to one another in real time. All of which I suppose makes me an ideal listener for his music: I’ve heard him in multiple contexts — acoustic, electric, solo, spontaneous — and am able to appreciate all these pieces coming together in a whole that is organic yet as inevitable as any improvised music can be.
Playground is not an extended drum solo, as one might expect; it’s what the best improvised art should be: a window into what makes the musician tick, as an artist, as a person. As such, there is humor, intensity and mostly a joy of expression on continuous display, throughout. It’s reminiscent of the Hamid Drake/William Parker collaborations, which — in addition to the prodigious bass and drum interaction — tend to utilize some exotic instruments and spoken word. This, in its way, is more impressive, as it’s one man, no net, no script, no support: just the creativity in transition from inside to outside, while the tape rolls.
It’s so cool to see, from what Eno (and Fripp) started, with looping evolve into ways one-man bands can become an orchestra of virtually unlimited size and scope. It’s also a gimmick that tires quickly, if used without imagination or ability. Playground, to be certain, features the mind of a drummer who can juggle many thoughts, beats and sounds at one time, all in the service of making something far greater than the sum of its parts.
Kunzli can sing; he can hum, he is one hell of a whistler. If there can be any complaint, it’s that despite the abundance of sensations available to the ears, it would be that much more remarkable to see happen in person. And since this was one continuous improvisation, it would be a marvel to behold it.
Musicians make music so they can perform. They record performances so they can capture a moment that can’t ever be repeated, for posterity. They also preserve these moments for anyone who is unable to interact with them, in real time. As such, this type of music always loses a bit of its magic in digital form. On the other hand, Playground is so bursting with ideas, energy and elation, it’s not a substitute for live performance so much as a placeholder: it serves its purpose and can be enjoyed, repeatedly. A win/win, at least until you happen to catch Kunzli live.
The best art makes you feel happy in a way that only cart can. The art we savor makes us glad to be alive. Playground is this year’s happy rejoinder I’ll submit to any naysayers whose programmed playlists have become stale and who are in need of evidence that now remains the time, as always, to hear our world from a fresh perspective.