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MP3 Alex Kontorovich - Deep Minor

World Jazz - high energy rambunctious rhythmic grooves and intricate improvisations mixing funk, Afro-Cuban, klezmer and Balkan influences.

8 MP3 Songs
JAZZ: World Fusion, WORLD: Klezmer

A few short months ago, I met with alto saxophonist/clarinetist Alex Kontorovich to discuss his latest project, Deep Minor. I did so with much expectation as he, and a few other musicians of his generation, are at the heart of Jewish music’s most refreshing development: a generation of young musicians coming of age post-revival. From previous conversations with him and having heard his music on numerous occasions, it is clear that he is an integral part and articulate spokesperson for a new legion of Jewish world jazz musicians who are as much at home with Parker and Coltrane as they are with Brandwein and Tarras or Zorn and Krakauer. Deep Minor is no nostalgia trip or roots re-discovery journey, but is the result of a talented musician aware of the intricacies of jazz, world music and advanced composition in ways that belie his age.

Born in Russia before Glasnost, Kontorovich brings to his music early vivid memories of Jewish repression and scarcity of necessities. Perhaps these recollections are partly responsible for his ability to blend the freedom of jazz with klezmer’s Eastern European identity in such an elegant way. In addition, his overall persona differentiates him from the stereotyped “twenty-something” who grew up online lacking an ideology, purpose or cultural identity. A martial arts black belt, doctoral level mathematician (we are talking Columbia and Princeton) and classically trained musician, Kontorovich seems to represent the best of his cohort’s diversity. Add to that his stunning credentials in klezmer and modern jazz and it is no accident that this music is an exciting and positive reflection of the next Jewish and jazz generation coming of age amidst a myriad of multicultural influences.

When it comes to jazz, Kontorovich is well versed in the gospel according to Bird and Trane. A self described "Bird-head", his studies with tenor saxophonists Ralph Bowen and Walt Weiskopf have resulted in a musician capable of powerful improvisation who plays from the heart. While Weiskopf’s approach to intervallic improvisation and Bowen’s soulfulness clearly impact Kontorovich’s style and musical mindset, Deep Minor makes its own statement as an elegantly interconnected hybridization of klezmer with modern jazz.

While his jazz background is notable, Kontorovich’s knowledge and familiarity with klezmer is equally impressive. Much in demand as a klezmer sideman, he has added his horns to most of the top bands in the genre, including both the Klezmatics and Frank London’s Klezmer Brass All Stars. A faculty member at KlezKanada and KlezKamp and a founding member of the electrifying klezmer aggregation, the Klez Dispensers, Kontorovich recently produced the first CD to exclusively highlight the late Moldavian klezmer clarinetist, German Goldenshtayn. Combine this with his presence on both the ska (with seminal NYC singer and multi instrumentalist King Django) and Balkan brass band (Serbian trumpeter extraordinaire Boban Markovic) scenes and Deep Minor presents the musical vision of a world musician in the truest sense.

Despite Kontorovich’s familiarity with both klezmer and modern jazz, Deep Minor is neither an exercise in free form dissonance nor an excursion down klezmer memory lane. While clearly on the cusp of becoming a major voice in the cacophony of NYC jazz, Deep Minor stakes out Kontorovich’s personal musical territory defining his sound in the context of his debut as a leader - a sound whose soul is composed of equal parts immigrant experience, bluesman’s reflection and youthful optimism. In the varied aspects of his life, and his music is no exception, Kontorovich uses intense discipline to achieve freedom. He uses this philosophy on Deep Minor to, in his own words, highlight “the improvisatory harmonic and structural interplay between the jazz and klezmer genres.”

In bringing together this advanced ensemble that presents his original music, Kontorovich has assembled a captivating cast of world musicians. Bassist Reuben Radding and drummer Aaron Alexander are two individuals who, like Kontorovich, have produced their own takes on the intermarriage of jazz and world music. Together, they form a rhythm section that fosters exploration of these varied compositions. Both players are well known to the NYC “Downtown” avant garde and free jazz scenes. They also each have their own roots in the 70s-80s grunge/punk scenes of their respective hometowns, DC and Seattle. Since moving to NYC, they are first call among the city’s jazz, klezmer and world music communities. They bring their experience as working musicians with extensive cross genre expertise along with their adventurous spirits to this session. In the process, they create a formidable rhythm section that both lays down substantial sonic support and helps propel the music into unfamiliar environs.

The banjo, due to its origins and timbre, never made any real impact on klezmer during the height of the genre’s European and American popularity. A staple in early jazz, its inability to compete as an acoustic solo instrument with trumpet based smaller jazz ensembles led to its demise. Although the banjo was present on some early US klezmer releases, the Eastern European/Turkish hammered dulcimer or tsimbele, a standard in “Old World” klezmer, is perhaps the closest thing to its sound in the Ashkenazi musical tradition. While 1970s klezmer revival band Kapelye featured banjoist Henry Sapoznik, Brandon Seabrook has expanded the scope of this instrument while defining its place in modern jazz/klezmer fusion. His unique approach, more percussive than country, is a staple of the pioneering jazz/klezmer band Naftule’s Dream and its more traditional alter ego, Shirim. He is the perfect foil for Kontorovich’s musical vision and lends his inventive improvisations and stylings to this session while doubling on electric guitar to add a searing edge to several of these compositions.

Beginning with "Transit Strike Blues", composed during the latest NYC transit strike, the quartet immediately shows its colors. A catchy melody, using the klezmer misheberach mode inside a minor blues, is proffered by Kontorovich that serves as both improvisatory platform and introduction to the unique voicing of his clarinet and Seabrook''s banjo. Implementing Weiskopf''s intervallic approach to triad pairs, he stacks a major triad atop a minor one to paradoxically find happiness within this minor blues. The quick step rhythm adds to the almost frenetic pace of this short piece as both players opine on the eccentric hustle and bustle that remains, or is the result of, no public transportation in the Big Apple.

During the early part of the last century, bandleader and clarinetist Harry Kandel was a leading figure in klezmer music’s entrée into America. Born in Russia and trained at the Odessa Conservatory he is best known for his compositional skills and the 90 plus recordings that he and his orchestra made for Victor between the years 1917-1924. His “Kandel’s Hora” is an example of the Romanian hora or “zhok”, a multipurpose dance tune defined by its emphasis on the first and third beats of a three beat measure. Here as “Kandels Burning”, Kontorovich recomposes the ninety year old tune, taking it up and out. The halting quirky rhythms and Alexander’s multipercussive improv are a backdrop for some beautiful alto playing and banjo augmentation. The piece maintains a spirituality that transcends genre as Kandel meets Coltrane midway through this alternative journey.

Radding’s bass is the touchstone for “New Orleans Funeral March”, an elegeic tribute to the birthplace of jazz. Alto combines with electric guitar following an exotic calm before the storm to produce a bluesy soundscape. This deconstructs into a free jazz electric maelstrom that melodically resurfaces to impart a hopeful revelation. A visionary integration of jazz, classical and tango to produce the complexly sensual “tango nuevo” is Astor Piazzolla’s enduring contribution to world music. It remains a rich source for jazz musicians everywhere and with “Waltz for Piazzolla”, Kontorovich shows that this master’s inspiration translates exceedingly well to this deceptively simple jazz waltz, gloriously rendered on clarinet against a delicate rhythmic backdrop.

There is nothing like a Jewish sirba to test the mettle of both clarinetist and dancers. Often times part of a three part medley that includes doina (slow improvisatory meditation), zhok and sirba, the sirba can have all collapsing from exhaustion. Kontorovich describes his “Sirba” as a fast tune alternating between a stop-time rhythm, swung sirba feel, and bulgar beat. He includes interesting minimalistic respites from the basic melody to ornament this basic dance form. “Nossim Hora” shows the singular nature of Brandon Seabrook and his instrument. He subtly turns banjo to bluegrass balalaika in the context of a Monk-esque improvisational style. The aptly named “Afro-Jewban Suite” displays unique in-tandem ensemble playing that Kontorovich describes as a tune that “began as a study of the bebop scale in altered phrygian turned into an AfroCuban Klezmer mix”. In the end, all things postmodern return to Bird and CD closer “Tzitzit” is a perfect summation of Deep Minor’s ethos. Using Charlie Parker’s “Chi-Chi” as inspiration, with Alexander’s and Radding’s driving rhythmic propulsion, Kontorovich has Bird meeting Brandwein, quoting them both in the same phrase.

Elliott Simon


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