Schizophonia: Cantorial Recordings Reimagined

Schizophonia set a new bar for ways we can imagine intersections between the old school, the spiritual, and the evanescent.
Cantorial Recordings Reimagined
Blue Thread

There is a common theme that connects Yoshie Fruchter with his occasional partners in crime Jon Madof and Aram Bajakian: They all play guitars. More, they have all recorded on John Zorn’s Tzadik label, establishing themselves as vital contributors to the NYC downtown music scene. Perhaps most important, all three share a keen appreciation and knowledge of history: Employing their spiritual heritages and a profound appreciation for culture(s), these men refine the art of making the Old into the New.

Yoshie Fruchter has demonstrated over the last decade that he’s a musician and composer to take seriously, and enjoy. His band Pitom’s first two releases, Pitom (2008) and Blasphemy and Other Serious Crimes (2011) are splendid explorations of traditional Jewish music sandblasted with jazz, rock and metal. His presence –in concert and on record– in Jon Madof’s Zion 80 brings a muscular yet intelligent frenzy to the proceedings.

His latest project, an obvious labor of love, uses Jewish cantorial recordings as a source of extraordinary musical dialogue. Fruchter describes the undertaking as “an exploration of cantorial music found on 20th century recordings and re-imagined through a contemporary lens”. That Fruchter has the knowledge of this material –much less the inclination to reinterpret it in his own weird, wonderful way– should underscore the seriousness, and passion, imbuing these reworked arrangements.

The results are, unsurprisingly, spectacular. This effort can be considered a kindred spirit to the alternately dark and ebullient music Fruchter has already made, but Schizophonia takes things to an advanced level, both conceptually and in execution. Where he’s previously invoked–lovingly, coyly, ironically– Jewish tradition (in general) and cantorial songs (in particular), this endeavor is necessarily all-in, and where Yoshie has trod the thin line between inspiration and escape, this time out he carves his own unique, almost quixotic turf. He pulls it off, and in the process has set the bar for ways we can imagine intersections between the old school, the spiritual and the evanescent. At times, you can practically smell the incense in a place of worship; in others you can see the sweat from a brightly-lit stage; when it all comes together it is delightfully disorienting: hearing an ancient world with tomorrow’s ears.

A safer, less satisfying project would take the more predictable route by putting proper songs into a purely musical context. On this outing, there are no half measures: the lyrics (in Yiddish) are sung by Fruchter himself, and he acquits himself quite capably –particularly on opening track “Shir Hashirim”. Indeed, while his singing voice is never less than pleasant or effective, the ways he tweaks vocals, via overdubs and effects, only underscores the otherworldly source material. This is music that rewards all the senses: it makes you think, and it is difficult not to imagine other times and places, even as they are clearly –and occasionally surreally– filtered through the here and now.

Lest anyone, at this point, be concerned this is an exercise in indulgence or an overly academic snoozefest, let it be clearly stated that Cantorial Recordings Reimagined is filled with smoldering life. Fruchter can rock out with the best of them, and while his style is original, there are inevitable maestros some of the playing will call to mind. Where a love and familiarity with Robert Fripp has been apparent (especially on the first Pitom release), the two guitarists this writer keeps hearing traces of are Steve Hackett (Genesis) and jazz genius Sonny Sharrock (notably on second track “Tzur Chayenu”, which features a mid-song vocal meltdown that mutates into a tasty dose of postmodern prog).

Several of the songs, especially “Wehoser Soton”, wouldn’t sound out of place on Mr. Bungle’s California, and there is an exotic use of placid and intense that might make one fondly recall Santana’s Caravanserai. And a shout-out to the aforementioned Madof is entirely warranted, as he covered some of this ground on his masterful record The Gathering. (Cantorial Recordings Reimagined could, in some ways, be seen as a consummation of the creative gauntlet Madof threw down on his track “Jeremiah”.)

Bassist Shanir Blumenkranz adds another notch to that iron man belt, his status as avant-garde go-to guy more secure than ever. Brian Marsella, whose contributions to Zion80 have been celebrated elsewhere, is the essential X-factor on this session: his steady, inventive hands drive several songs, and standout track “B’Rosh Hashonoh” is like The Tony Williams Lifetime meeting John Zorn’s Electric Masada, only mellower and more Jewish.

Fruchter carves out some space for himself on the fifth and sixth tracks (“Shir Hamalos” and “Vehu Rochum”), showcasing his ability to do light and dark, or gentle and heavy. Only Madof has previously mixed the tritone and the synagogue so successfully, and how many musicians would even attempt to mesh gloomy and reverent in such a fashion? Another highlight is “Brich Shmeh”, wherein Fruchter really gets into his own thing, alternating between banjo, Sharrockian shredding and, with the assistance of Marsella and percussionist Rich Stein, a swinging (!) Eastern vibe.

The proceedings are brisk and, fortunately, Fruchter does not stretch the material –or himself– too thin. There’s no repetition and several stylistic avenues are explored. Cantorial Recordings Reimagined, after multiple listens, certainly prevails as a continuation of previous projects, but carves out wholly new territory, mixing rabbinical, metal and sophisticated jazz, all in the service of some deeply spiritual, utterly convincing sounds.

RATING 8 / 10