Firmly in the mold of the adventurous, avant-leaning ‘Radical Jewish’ music championed by John Zorn (via the Tzadik label), Alex Kontorovich’s debut CD "Deep Minor" is one of 2007’s best releases in this rapidly-growing sub-genre. A Russian-born, classically-trained saxophonist, clarinetist, and composer, Kontorovich is also the Tamarkin Assitant Professor of Mathematics at Brown University, where he lectures on Number Theory, Stochastic Processes, Game Theory, and other topics. Kontorovich has also recorded with Aaron Alexander’s ‘Midrash Mish-Mosh’ Frank London’s Klezmer Brass All-Stars, and the very wittily named Klez Dispensers.
Kontorovich’s classical training is evident primarily in the lush, buttery sound he gets on both the clarinet and the alto saxophone. Throughout ‘Deep Minor’, it is also immediately apparent that his jazz and Klezmer chops on both of his axes are utterly authentic and quite formidable. He is backed by a band of no-nonsense downtown NYC avant-Klez-Jazz ringers. Drummer Aaron Alexander, one of the busiest guys in town, is well-known for his work with Satoko Fujii’s Orchestra West, Hasidic New Wave, Babkas, The Dave Tronzo Trio, Frank London, and Greg Wall. Bassist Ruben Radding has firmly established himself as a world-class improvising bassist through his work with Stephen Gauci, Nate Wooley, Matt Moran, Mary Halvorsen, and countless others. He also gigs with Kontorovich in the Klez Dispensers.
Kontorovich’s frontline partner, Brandon Seabrook, deserves special mention for he is one of the most interesting and individualistic plectrists to come along in quite some time. A member of the avant-klezmer bands Naftule’s Dream and Shirim, Seabrook is one of the few guys out there who dares to play the banjo in non-bluegrass and non-Appalachian folk music environments. Though he revels in its odd metallic twang, Seabrook approaches the banjo with equal parts humor and respect. He often uses it percussively when comping behind the melody or another soloist. His banjo solos on ‘Transit Strike Blues’ and ‘Kandels Burning’ are relentlessly rhythmic and full of odd trills and strange sonorities. On electric guitar, Seabrook is startlingly adept and inventive in his use of various electronic effects to add color and dynamic range to different sections of a composition. His use of the echoplex on ‘New Orleans Funeral March’ and ‘Sirba’ is reminiscent of Sonny Sharrock’s groundbreaking work with Miles Davis. He uses a highly percussive approach somewhat akin to his banjo technique to great effect on ‘AfroJewban Suite’, where he sounds like a Yiddish Dick Dale. On the other hand, his mellow, clean electric tone ‘Waltz for Piazzola’ provides the perfect backdrop for Kontorovich’s extraordinary clarinet solo.
"Deep Minor" is a really impressive survey of the state-of-the-art in avant-Klezmer-Jazz. The tunes, all Kontorovich originals, fuse Klezmer and modern jazz in a particularly organic way. Several of the pieces - ‘Kandels Burning’, ‘Sirba’, and ‘Nossim Hora’ - use Jewish or Middle Eastern dance rhythms as a jumping-off point for inspired new melodies. ‘Transit Strike Blues’ and ‘New Orleans Funeral March’ do the inverse; fusing Yiddish melodies and harmonies onto ostensibly African or Afro-Cuban derived rhythmic structures. ‘AfroJewban Suite’ is the best of both worlds - a tasty ethnic stew in which the diverse flavors are combined in a way that enhances the overall flavor. The set’s closer - ‘Tzitzit’ - is a Charlie Parker tune (Chi Chi) reimagined as something Mickey Katz or Giora Fiedman would play during a particularly wild weekend in the Catskills.
‘Deep Minor’ is a joy to listen to because it sounds like it was a joy to make. Even at its most radical and experimental, there’s a palpable warmth to Kontorovich’s music - perhaps because it celebrates several different cultures that are closely tied by common threads of mutual admiration and respect. Never derivative or imitative, ‘Deep Minor’ is an exhilarating blast of fresh, inventive, and inspired music for the 21st Century.