Australian Jewish Music Ensemble
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Australian Jewish Music Ensemble

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"Ascending on High Down Under"




A JAZZ feeling of exploration in a more fixed arrangement
Photo by: Courtesy
Ascending on high Down Under
By DAVID BRINN
06/27/2010 21:13

Standing traditional tunes on their head.


Let’s just say that you’ve probably never heard “Ma Nishtana” performed like this before. The traditional Pessah song is just one of the wellknown traditional tunes – others include “Erev Shel Shoshanim” and “Yedid Nefesh” – that the Australian Jewish Music Ensemble stands on its head through its jazz/world music/classical prism.

Using the basic song structures as a jumping-off point, the group, led by brothers Simon and Adam Starr, explore all avenues of improvisation and grooves on their way to forging a new Jewish music hybrid.

“Our goal is to revitalize this genre. There’s a lot of Jewish jazz out there, but I haven’t found anything like what we’re doing,” said Simon Starr last week ahead of the group’s concert tonight (Monday) at Beit Avi Chai in Jerusalem.

“John Zorn is more quirky, presenting the darker side, and there’s lots of mizrahi Jewish music, but I haven’t noticed anyone doing modern jazz with classical arrangements as a vehicle for playing Jewish music.”

The 38-year-old Starr, who immigrated to Israel last year from Melbourne, has been working as a professional musician for over 20 years, playing his own rock music and touring as a bass guitarist with Australian artists like James Morrison, and The Black Sorrows. But he gave it all up for life on Kibbutz Ein Gev on the Kinneret, along with his wife and three children.

“We had a great life there, but more and more [we] wanted to live here,” said Starr. “My family were Zionists, halutzim involved with setting up Rosh Pina, so the pull here is very strong in my family. Israel is so different than Australia – intense, creative and crazy. Australia is so predictable.”

In Melbourne, Starr also played his own jazz-tinged music, and along with his guitar-playing brother began performing at corporate and family functions, including many Jewish-based affairs. The concept of the ensemble rose out of the brothers’ attempts to freshen up the well-worn material.

“Because we were playing a lot of Jewish functions, we thought it would be interesting to put together some jazz arrangements of Jewish music. We put on a few shows in Melbourne and they were massively received,” said Starr. “We decided to start an ensemble to explore the music more thoroughly. As part of that, we began approaching elderly members of the community and asked them for their oral musical history. We recorded bits of Yemenite music, of someone reading Torah with a melody that was used in Iraq only on the high holidays, and we turned them into pieces of contemporary music.”

That might be easier for the Starrs than for you or I – Simon is currently working on his Masters in composition and Adam, also in Israel for a year, is studying for his Doctorate in composition.

THE STARRS’ Jewish music project resulted in an album called Pazit – recorded before Simon made aliya – which brought all the influences together into a melting pot.

“Both of us have a background in jazz, classical and popular music,” said Simon. “We tried to arrange the songs in chamber music style, not like having the jazz musician playing quickly in order to get to the solo. So there’s still a jazz feeling of exploration but in a more fixed arrangement.”

Since their arrival in Israel, the Starrs have formed an Israeli version of the Australian Jewish Music Ensemble, and have begun performing around the country, including shows at Shablul in Tel Aviv and The Yellow Submarine in Jerusalem. Among the musicians are Anat Fort on piano, Amir Bressler on drums, Kobi Salamon on woodwinds, and Gershon Waiserfirer on trombone, oud, and darbuka.

“It’s so exciting because they have such great depth musically. There’s so many great musicians here, I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface,” said Starr. “Anat Forte is signed to a major jazz label, Amir is going to be playing with Avishai Cohen, and Gershon is a jaw-dropping virtuoso – they’re musicians as good as any I’ve played with anywhere. And it’s exciting to develop the music here with some Israeli input – it’s sort of a cultural exchange.”

And the notion of secular Israeli jazz musicians playing Jewish liturgical music hasn’t been as far-fetched as it may seem, with the local musicians building on the Starr’s enthusiasm and taking the vibe even further.

“I would say the Israeli musicians in the band are connected to the music and can add layers to it because of their full engagement,” said Starr.“When we recorded Pazit in Australia, our pianist in Melbourne played this lullaby – “Mama Yo no Tengo Visto hit Rag’ut” – that his grandmother, an Egyptian Jew, had sung to him when he was young. When we brought it to the band here, Anat heard it and said she knew it as well. So there’s an emotional resonance there for the musicians.”
- Jerusalem Post


"Zion of The Times"

Though Jews and Jazz are no strangers, ‘Pazit’, the debut release from the Australian Jewish Music Ensemble, offers a heady reinterpretation of Judaic classics that saunters, grooves and bubbles like a simmering chicken soup on an arctic winter’s night.

Starring the usual suspects of Melbourne’s Jewish musical glitterati, Adam and Simon Starr have taken time out from their dizzying international schedules to bring together some of Australia’s coolest Katz to create ‘Pazit’, a tour-de-Schwartz of familiar Jewish tunes, with all of the flavour and none of the schmaltz.

Rising from the crucible of the Jewish Museum of Australia’s ‘So Many Notes’ Jewish jazz concert that was directed by the brothers at BMW Edge in 2008, the Australian Jewish Music Ensemble celebrates the kaleidoscopic history of not only Jewish musical traditions, but also the diverse geographies that have shaped them. And all through the prism of an earnest jazz exploration that resists the temptation to segue into kitschy lounge pastiche.

Like an abundant Passover Seder plate, the group is fleshed out with the likes of Anton Delecca on saxophone, Daniel Farrugia on drums, Stephen Grant on trumpet and accordion, Scott Griffiths on piano and melodica, Sam Hirschfelder on drums and Luke Howard on piano. Adam and Simon, appearing on the guitar and double bass respectively, are the matzo sandwiching this sonic feast.

The album debuts with the infectious ‘Lech Lamidbar V’hitpalel’, a 60s New York Latin-Soul infused cook-up that breathes zesty life into a folk song that long ago urged European Jews to ‘up stumps’ and resettle in the midst of the Middle Eastern deserts. An unambiguous highlight of the album is the rhythmic shift that ushers in the hypnotic Cuban inflected chant of ‘Ki Mitzion Teitze Torah’ meaning literally ‘from out of Zion the Torah shall go forth’.

Similarly, ‘Meditations On A Judeo-Babylonian Ritual Song’, is a veritable collision between the ancient and the avant-garde, and is distinguished by the sonic resurrection of archival recordings of a sparse and baying vocal performance of ‘Yehi Shalom Beheylenu’, meaning ‘there shall be peace within our camps’. This haunting vocal is transformed and transported forward in time by the modulations of the band who effortlessly weave about it, flirting with the Middle Eastern modes and organic time signatures in a way that defies gravity.

Simply put, some recordings are nebbish fast food for the ears with no nutritional, emotional or intellectual value. By contrast this is a feast to be savoured at length, a feast that encourages you to pop open the top button of your pants, lean to one side, and to drink in the profound history of a people who have journeyed, a people who have lost, a people who have triumphed, and a people who have been chosen, if for nothing else, to be the custodians of some truly sumptuous music. - Adrian Elton 09/09/09


Discography

LP- Pazit - released on Jazzhead
Tracks have been played extensively on Radio National in Australia, and jazz stations in Israel.

Photos

Bio

Formed after a lifetime of absorbing and playing Jewish music, Australian composer/performers Adam and Simon Starr formed the AJME with Luke Howard after 2 sell out concerts at Melbourne's premium performance space BMW-EDGE. Both concerts were produced by the Starrs, and consisted of Jewish music interpreted in a jazz/world idiom. The rapturous responses prompted the formation of the band, and with the assistance of a generous grant from the City of Port Philip, they recorded their first album, 'Pazit', now out on Jazzhead records.

AJME is unique in that explores different areas from most other Jewish Jazz groups, who usually define themselves as being based on the Ashkenazi/Klezmer tradition, or Sephardi/Middle Eastern tradition.
AJME takes music from all areas of Jewish heritage and adds the special imprint of deeply layered arrangements, original compositions added to the traditional material, variations on themes, and improvisations that serve each piece. These pieces are aesthetically closer to Western Art music, but retain some idiomatic features of both the Ashkenazi and Sephardi traditions.

The musicians in AJME have been drawn from the first rank of improvising musicians in Australia, ensuring that the group interplay and individual solos both serve the arrangement and add tremendous dynamism to each performance, ensuring that AJME never play a piece the same way twice.

The Starr brothers are currently living in Israel to further research the many Jewish musical traditions. This is providing AJME with inspiration, resulting in new arrangements and compositions, which will be tested out on Israeli audiences at concerts in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.