Just off the top of my head I can think of three very good live music performances that I’ve seen in DC in the past few years thanks to the Washington DC Jewish Community Center’s arts program: Charming Hostess, Hasidic New Wave, and Rashanim (performing rock interpretations of John Zorn’s Masada songbook). I missed the Washington Jewish Music Festival last year, but this year there looked to be a bunch of interesting artists, and so even though I haven’t heard of most of them, I decided to attend as much shows as I could. This is helped by the fact that I landed a photography gig allowing me to document the shows I go to — per usual, the results are up at Flickr. Photography notes are at my photography blog; this is a condensed version with just discussions of the music I’ve seen so far.
The whole shebang kicked off on June 1, jointly with an absolutely enormous Israel @ 60 celebration. Israel @ 60 was a free event going on all day outside on DC’s National Mall; the musical attractions were “anti-folk” singer/composer Regina Spektor and the apparently very popular Israeli rock band Mashina. Later that night, WJMF also sponsored an interesting show at Bohemian Caverns: Ayelet Rose Gottlieb/Anat Fort/Rafi Malkiel, a vocals/piano/trombone trio who recently released an album on Zorn’s Tzadik label.
I went to all of the above. Mashina was first, kicking off a little after 1:15. Their set was relatively straightforward rock-and-roll, totally accessible for the mainstream crowd but thoroughly competent and musical, enough to keep me entertained for a while. At 3:30, Regina Spektor came on, and she was a joy to watch and photograph — she has an incredibly expressive face and almost always seems to be smiling. All this despite the fact that she didn’t quite seem to be settled in for the first few songs - perhaps because she had to change some lyrics around to accommodate the children in the audience (although there were some “god damns” and reference to cocaine), or simply the fact that she was playing in front of an enormous outdoor audience. She actually forgot the words in the middle of her second song, but handled it in the most endearing way possible, laughing at herself and appealing to her fans in the audience for help. She played piano and guitar and performed one song with a beatboxer as well. It was a great (though short) set for an enthusiastic audience; her vocal talent was really what stole the show, but she was no slouch on either instrument. I think it would be really interesting to hear her perform with some of the downtown NY scene jazz musicians; she frequents some of the same venues, apparently, like Tonic (RIP) and the Knitting Factory.
Then, a couple hours after events on the Mall came to a close, a much more intimate affair took place at Bohemian Caverns, a historic jazz club in the U Street neighborhood that is actually built to look like a cavern when you’re inside. The Gottlieb/Fort/Malkiel trio played a set of “love poetry set to jazz,” which was not surprisingly mostly slow-moving, laid-back vocal jazz. I was impressed by all three musicians’ technical skill — Malkiel was amazingly effective at using the trombone as a textural instrument, Gottlieb has an impressive voice and a whimsical style, and Fort’s work on the ivory keys was what held it all together for me, melodic and beautiful but never too straightforward or obvious. Most of the songs drew from Gottlieb’s album Mayim Rabim on Tzadik, described by the label as “an evocative song cycle based on texts from the erotic Biblical love poems Song of Songs.” Gottlieb explained some of the lyrics for the monolingual folks in the room, and they were… odd. The last song, for instance, was something like a poem about how “as the apples are to the trees, so my man is among men, and his fruit is sweet in my mouth.” Um… perhaps I’m glad I couldn’t understand the lyrics. :) Regardless, after a long afternoon under the hot sun, this relaxing set of slow jazz was a nice comedown. Following the show, I’ve been investigating Anat Fort’s discography, and may pick up her latest disc on ECM, 2007’s A Long Story.
Last night, though, was the highlight of the fest so far for me, and perhaps the show of most immediate interest to readers of this website. Toronto’s Beyond the Pale is a five-piece band playing that kind of skewed “world music” that draws mainly from European folk traditions while also mixing in random bits of jazz, rock, bluegrass and other Americana. They reminded me of (and these are not close comparisons, mind you, just bands I thought of while listening) the kinds of bands on the Northside label; or an instrumental Charming Hostess; or Alamaailman Vasarat minus the drones and processed cellos; or Stórsveit Nix Noltes, who opened for Animal Collective a couple years ago and blew me away. With mandolin, clarinet, violin, accordion and acoustic bass, these guys introduced their songs with rhetorical questions like “have you ever wondered what bluegrass would sound like if it were from Romania?” The resulting fusion of ethnic styles was something that I’m a total sucker for, and the sizable audience was eating it up as well. Much of what they played were original compositions, but there were also interpretations of existing material that were brilliant — such as their encore piece, which was Mozart’s Minuet in D Minor (I think) reinterpreted through a Serbian folk lens and written in a stilted 7/8 meter (parts of this were hilarious).
I’m going to two more WJMF shows, and if they’re half as good as last night’s, I’ll be happy.