Boy-o-boy do I hate the term “world music”. There is something mushy about the term (isn’t all music, well, . . . “world” music?), and there is certainly something mushy-gushy about much music marketed with that term — Peruvian flutes and droning synthesizers, that kind of thing. Somewhere along the line, “world music” started to mean “charming, soothing, and non-offensive sounds from other cultures.” Blech! It is as if the term “world cheese” meant Velveeta. I want some Roquefort or Italian Fontina!
And that’s why Odessa/Havana tastes so good.
This project on John Zorn’s Tzadik label is credited to Canadian trumpeter/composer David Buchbinder. It consists of a sparks-flying collaboration between Buchbinder and Cuban pianist/composer Hilario Duran (recently based on Toronto) — a seamless blend of Jewish klezmer music and Afro-Cuban music that manages to retain both traditions even as it sounds like something wholly new. In the end, of course, Odessa/Havana most resembles a jazz recording: rich in polyrhythm, improvisation, collaboration, and cultural overlap.
The band that Buchbinder and Duran have put together mines the natural overlap between salsa and klezmer. In addition to piano and trumpet, the band includes saxophone (Quinsin Natchoff), violin (Aleksander Gajic), congas (Jorge Luis Torres), dumbek and other hand percussion (Rick Lazar), and drum kit (Mark Kelso or Dafnis Prieto). The composition credits are split nearly down the middle, with four Duran tunes, three by Buchbinder, and one collaboration. But the surprise is that the tunes do not follow type — Duran’s “Freylekhs Tumbao” sounds primarily klezmer-ish while Buchbinder’s “Lailadance” is driven by a hip montuno and decidedly Latin percussion groove. This is music, to use Duke Ellington’s lovely phrase, “beyond category”.
Most of the songs here, however, achieve a unique balance between the two types. Though “Lailadance” is driven by an Afro-Cuban rhythm, the contour of the minor melody and the voicing of the instruments evoke Eastern European yearning as certainly as can be. On Duran’s “Impresiones”, the two worlds lock together like puzzle pieces and inspire extremely hot solos from Natchoff and Duran. “Rumba Judia” starts with a massive percussion workout, then it moves into a snapping jazz head and a violin solo over Latin piano vamp. The fiddle drips with klezmer tonality even as the groove percolates like Spanish Harlem itself. It is a combination as pleasing as it is natural.
Some of the finest music on Odessa/Havana is slower and more contemplative. “Prayer” begins with a melody articulated on acoustic bass, then shifted to trumpet, then to violin and bass in unison, then to a whining soprano saxophone. The tune is mournful and blues-drenched but in a different way. “Cadiz” is even more compelling, with a droning beginning that slowly builds with the horns and violin harmonizing over the piano and then a gradual build-up to a dancing groove that allows for lines that bring out bebop feeling, salsa fire, and Jewish hope. The tenor solo here is restless and unique — roiling like Coltrane but utterly original because of the mixture of contexts.
The tune written by both Buchbinder and Duran is, of course, “Colaboracion”, and it has the most jazz punch. The violin solo looks most intelligently at the song, and Buchbinder’s trumpet solo sounds like Freddie Hubbard unleashed on a hip Latin chart. This is, for me, the unwritten secret of the Tzadik series of recordings. While the disc-art is festooned with the Star of David and label trumpets a Jewish aesthetic, it all still comes back to jazz. “Jazz” is a word that arguable means less and less each year, but the concept still suggests that American music can be a creative pot into which many varied ingredients can contribute to a sound that is constantly improved by openness to the new or the “other”. Odessa/Havana is certainly that.
In the end, it’s music like this that feeds jazz and keeps jazz fresh. The players here come from different places and different traditions, but they bring it all into a music that asks them each to listen carefully and take some chances. It sounds like at least three different cultures at once, which is to say that it sounds a whole lot like the U.S. — like one terrific Manhattan block.
If you love “world music” — make that just music — that gets the blood to boil, then Odessa/Havana is a disc to catch up with.