by Ian Mann
January 09, 2013
"Open Circuit" explores the hinterland between jazz and avant rock, thrillingly mixing composed and improvised elements. An exciting and often visceral record.
(OutNow Recordings 010)
One of my 2012 live highlights was a duo performance at Dempsey’s in Cardiff by the guitar and drums duo of Israeli born musicians Eyal Maoz and Asaf Sirkis. The pair were born in the same Israeli town but their musical paths have led them to New York and London respectively. Maoz has become a key figure on the New York “Downtown” scene working with luminaries such as bassist Drew Gress, drummer Jim Black and the highly influential saxophonists John Zorn and Tim Berne (of whom more later). Sirkis meanwhile has become part of the bedrock of British jazz, leading his own trio and appearing as a sideman or collaborator in a myriad of other projects including the internationally acclaimed Lighthouse Trio.
However it’s Maoz we’re primarily concerned with here. 9Volt is a collaboration co-led by the guitarist and native New Yorker Rick Parker on trombone. The group is completed by Israeli born drummer Yonadav Halevy, a musician also well known for his work in the funk and hip hop genres. Exactly half of the album’s eight cuts feature the alto saxophone of illustrious guest Tim Berne, one of the most significant musicians to emerge from the New York scene in recent decades.
Like the Maoz/Sirkis duo 9Volt explores the hinterland between jazz and avant rock, thrillingly mixing composed and improvised elements with Parker and Maoz sharing the writing duties. Both co-leaders extend the sound of their instruments via the liberal use of electronics and effects. Maoz’s set up in Cardiff incorporated an impressive array of floor mounted pedals, switches and other gizmos and Parker evidently has a similar arsenal at his disposal. 9Volt’s music combines the improvising sensibility of jazz with the electricity and energy of rock. With Berne adding his muscular presence to at least some of the music “Open Circuit” is an exciting and often visceral record.
The trio plus Berne come roaring out of the blocks with Parker’s tune “Squegee”. The composer introduces the piece with a short passage of solo trombone and he’s subsequently joined by the urgent riffing of Maoz’s guitar and Halevy’s kinetic drumming. The unusual configuration of trombone and guitar works well with Parker and Maoz sometimes working in tandem ,at others bouncing ideas off each other in sparky counterpoint. Berne adds avant garde street cred, firstly squirting sax fills over a more impressionistic middle section before upping the ante in a series of squalling exchanges with Parker and Maoz, the flames fanned by Halevy’s increasingly incendiary drumming. The combination of jazz improvisation and ferocious math rock riffage gets the album off to a wildly exciting start.
However as the Maoz/Sirkis duo proved in Cardiff there’s more to Maoz than sheer noise and energy. Parker’s “3 and 2” presents the group’s more atmospheric side. Spacey, subtly treated guitar and simmering, tightly controlled percussion underpins long trombone and alto melody lines with Parker deploying a range of electronic effects on his lengthy trombone solo. The piece may represent the group’s more impressionistic side but there’s still a New York sense of edge and frisson about the music, something that manifests itself as the trio plus Berne ramp up the intensity in a searing final passage.
Credited to Parker/Maoz/Halevy “Yes Your Majesty” would appear to be a freely improvised three way conversation. It’s a spiky affair full of dark, rumbling textures with Parker’s trombone sometimes drenched in echo effects above the roar of Maoz’s guitar and the relentless prompting of Halevy’s drums.
Maoz’s brief “Blue Screen” explores semi ambient territory with spacey guitar sound-washes, shimmering cymbals and dolorous, long toned, sometimes electronically enhanced trombone. It’s a cousin to some of the more impressionistic pieces played by the Maoz/Sirkis duo in Cardiff.
Also written by Maoz “Foglah” commences with the rumble of Halevy’s drums before Maoz introduces a jerky theme that may well be based on Yiddish folk music. (Maoz also runs the four piece “Radical Jewish Culture” ensemble Edom whose acclaimed “Hope and Destruction” album (2009) appears on John Zorn’s Tzadik label). Naturally the group stretch this in many directions, diving off into the waters of free improvisation with Berne in tow. Some of the exchanges are blistering and visceral but are no less exciting for that.
By contrast Maoz’s “Wind of Water” seems to be more through composed and to owe more to the conventions of rock music. A plangent trombone lament alternates with passages of excoriating rock influenced guitar and Halevy’s drumming is relatively more straightforward than elsewhere. Not that there isn’t plenty to enjoy here, the music is still at the experimental end of the rock spectrum and the piece makes a good introduction for listeners who might be approaching 9Volt’s music from this angle.
Parker’s “Cubafone” marks the final contribution from Berne, the saxophonist sparring with Parker and Maoz in thrilling fashion above the driving force of Halevy’s drums. There’s a later excursion into more freely structured territory with Maoz deploying his various devices to maximum effect before a typically rousing 9Volt climax. It’s a musical white knuckle ride that leaves the listener drained but exhilarated.
Maoz’s “Old Vodka” end the album on a more elegiac note with the composer’s simple, almost na?ve melody given a compelling electronic embellishment that ensures that the record’s omnipresent air of edginess remains to the end.
My thanks to Eyal for giving me a review copy of this album when we met in Cardiff back in September 2012 and my apologies for only just getting round to writing about it now. Hopefully he will fell that it’s been worth the wait. 9Volt’s blend of the composed and the improvised is just right for me, enough structure to hang on to but adventurous enough to be consistently compelling and invigorating. Maoz, Parker and Halevy are all superb technicians and the use of electronics by both Maoz and Parker is totally convincing as the pair extend the range of their respective instruments. The presence of Berne is the icing on the cake and he blends seamlessly into 9Volt’s sonic world. I understand that he also sometimes performs live as a guest of the trio. I bet that would be something well worth seeing although I fear that it’s extremely unlikely to happen in the UK. In the meantime we have this consistently exciting album for consolation, a record that challenges but is still accessible enough to reward most listeners with Maoz’s guitar work having the potential to appeal to adventurously inclined rock fans.