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YFZ (Yearning for Zion) by Shakers 'n' Bakers

Co-led by vocalist Mary LaRose and saxophonist Jeff Lederer, Shakers 'n' Bakers creates a hybrid music that is as intellectually challenging as it is earthy, passionate, and soulful. Though the many spiritual aspects of improvised music, manifested both as the process of music-making and as a source of divine inspiration, have been explored in great depth by artists such as John Coltrane, Albert Ayler, Duke Ellington, and Mary Lou Williams (to name just a few), these have historically dealt directly with inspiration from the African American Christian church and various non-Christian Eastern philosophies. Lederer and LaRose have tapped into an entirely different worldview - the philosophies of the Shakers and their Vision Songs - as the inspiration for their pungent, unbridled, and otherworldly music. As on their mind-blowingly terrific debut CD, the devotional aspects of this music remain firmly in the foreground throughout YFZ. The connection between their music and the Shaker way of life is quite apparent and not at all hidden behind layers of abstraction. This is all the more amazing when you consider that the Shakers 'n' Bakers and their music have been embraced by the Shakers themselves, even though Lederer, LaRose, and the rest of the band are not, to my knowledge, formal adherents to the sect.

YFZ is even more stylistically varied than the band's debut though all of the band's musical trademarks, such as LaRose's cool, jazzy vocals, Miles Griffith's spittle-gargling extreme vocals, Jeff Lederer's amazing reed playing, Jamie Saft's quirkily subversive keyboards, and the rock-solid rhythm section of Allison Miller and Chris Lightcap, remain. Inspired by John Adams' Road Movies, Part 2, 'Even Shakers Get The Blues' starts off with a minor-keyed, woozily languid melody stated by LaRose, Miles Griffith, and guest violinist Mark Feldman, which morphs into a gospel-soaked slow blues. The endlessly spiraling ecstatic energy of this piece is fuelled by edgy, extreme vocal exhortations over some manically beautiful collective soloing by Feldman, Lederer, and Saft. Traditional Gospel sounds also figure prominently on 'Lay Me Low' which features a lovely bass solo by Chris Lightcap that is slowly subsumed by Saft's spot-on sanctified roller-rink Hammond organ. The group seems to pick up the mantle of the UK-based progressive rock band Henry Cow on 'The Roar of G_D', with its snaky 9/8 meter, hilariously convoluted theme, theatrical vocals, and manic virtuoso soloing by Feldman and Lederer. The contrasting, elegaic feel of its somewhat doomy closing section is simply beautiful. Inspired by Gyorgy Ligeti's "Hungarian Rock," this is my favorite piece on the CD.

Guest drummer Matt Wilson and bass clarinetist Andrew DeAngelo are featured on the instrumental 'Scour and Scrub,' a wide open slab of gospel-tinged mid-tempo free bop gorgeousness that sounds like something that could have been written by Wilson's former mentor, Dewey Redman. The meditative title track is a majestic and all-too-brief duet for Saft's sparkling electric harpsichord and Lederer's Ayleresque tenor. On the other hand, 'Laughing John's Interrogatory' starts off like an avant-garde campfire sing-along before Lederer storms in with a brilliant solo which serves to focus the tune quite nicely. The CD closes out with 'Limber Zeal' a lengthy spoken word piece based on Arvo Part's "Spiegel im Spiegel." This piece has its heart in the right place, but didn't engage my interest as much as the rest of YFZ.

While not quite the equal of their thunderous debut, YFZ - the title refers to the Fundamentalist Mormon compound raided by Texas Child Protective Services in April 2008 - is a worthy follow-up. If anything, YFZ confirms that Lederer and LaRose are intrepid experimenters, never content to stay in one place too long. Though several pieces - such as the CD-opening 'In me Canoe,' 'Chinese!!!,' 'Lay me Low,' and the title track - have quite a bit in common with the music on their debut, most of YFZ reveals a greatly expanded, and quite omnivorous, musical vision. This includes the juxtaposition of some truly unexpected source materials, such as 20th Century avant-classical music, the blues, and the gospel sounds of the African American Christian church. There simply isn't another band even remotely like Shakers 'n' Bakers - they produce music that is archetypally folksy and somehow very very familiar while existing on the very cutting edge of the avant garde.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Shakers 'n' Bakers
  • CD Title: YFZ (Yearning for Zion)
  • Genre: Free Jazz / Avante Garde
  • Year Released: 2008
  • Record Label: little (i) music
  • Rating: Four Stars
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