by Ian Mann
October 21, 2018
A fascinating, multi faceted album. There’s a profound air of spirituality about the music, which is played by the Borochov quartet with an understated virtuosity and a simmering, low key intensity.
(Laborie Jazz LJ47)
Itamar Borochov is an Israeli born trumpeter and composer now based in Brooklyn, New York City.
Originally from the cosmopolitan port city of Jaffa Borochov brings the influence of Sephardic sacred music to jazz, particularly the use of Arabic scales. He first heard this music in his local synagogue and has since broadened his range of musical influences to include the ‘maqams’ of the greater Middle East and North Africa. The ‘maqam’ is the mode of Arabic Music, hence the resemblance of some of Borochov’s music to the modal jazz of Miles Davis, John Coltrane and others.
In addition to his Jewish, Arab and North African influences Borochov has also immersed himself in the realms of jazz and bebop, increasingly so since moving to the US. Borochov began playing trumpet at the age of eleven and has absorbed the jazz trumpet lineage of Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Lee Morgan, Kenny Dorham, Clark Terry, and Booker Little through to Wynton Marsalis, Jon Hassell and Arve Henriksen. He has also been open to the influence of other jazz instrumentalists such as saxophonists Ben Webster, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy.
Borochov also cites the influence of Weather Report plus such non-jazz artists as diverse as Edith Piaf, Nasrat Fatah Ali Khan and Prince. The trumpeter is interested in the similarities between different musical cultures, traditions and genres and brings something of that fascination to bear in his music.
Released on the French label Laborie Jazz “Blue Nights” represents Borochov’s third album as a leader and follows 2014’s “Outset” and “Boomerang” (2016). It’s his third album in the quartet format and features his current band consisting of his older brother Avri Borochov on double bass and oud, Rob Clearfield on piano and Jay Sawyer at the drums. Originally from Chicago, but now based in New York, Clearfield is a recording artist in his own right with four solo albums to his credit.
Make no mistake, “Blue Nights”, despite its many influences, is primarily a jazz record - as distinct from a ‘world jazz’ record. The core instrumentation is just trumpet, piano, double bass and drums, that of a classic jazz quartet. Borochov’s frequently quoted remark helps to put things into context;
“I have to be real. If John Coltrane was informed by his father being a preacher I had to do the same thing. Lee Morgan brought gospel and I’m bringing Sephardi synagogue music.”
Borochov’s musical mentors since moving to the US have included jazz veterans such as trombonist Curtis Fuller, vocalist Betty Carter and pianist Barry Harris. The latter’s advice on the rhythmic treatment of ballads feeds into the album’s gently brooding opener “Right Now” where the burnished whispering of Itamar’s trumpet combines with Clearfield’s pianistic melodicism and the measured support of Avri’s bass and Sawyer’s (mainly) brushed drums. The leader demonstrates a remarkable fluency and technical expertise on trumpet, but for all his artistry there’s never any sense of ‘grandstanding’.
Itamar describes the title track as being “like an Arabic pop song”. Initially the piece continues in the jazz ballad style of the opener, with Clearfield’s lyrical piano prominent in the tune’s early stages. The piece takes an abrupt turn a couple of minutes in with the establishment of a groove based on the debka dance of the Levant and the music takes on an Middle Eastern / North African air of exoticism, a quality suffused with additional authenticity by the sound of Avri Borochov doubling on oud. This acts as the cue for an upwardly spiralling, virtuoso trumpet solo from Itamar that demonstrates his mastery of the maqam.
“Motherlands” expands the sonic and geographical range still further with the addition of guest Gnawa musicians Alem Hassan Ben Jaafer (lead vocals), Samir Langus (chorus vocals, qraqeb) and Amino Belyamani (chorus vocals, qraqeb), the qraqebs being the metal castanets commonly used in Gnawa music. The three Gnawa musicians, collectively known as Innov Gnawa, are now based in New York City and are practitioners of the disappearing sebitiyin gnawa repertoire that was played when Jews and Gnawas still co-existed in North African states such as Morocco, Algeria and Libya. The piece opens with the sound of Clearfield’s piano, the motif based on the Gnawic pentatonic scale, joined first by Avri’s bass with trumpet and drums subsequently added to the equation. The tune gains momentum and takes a more obvious ‘world jazz’ direction with the addition of the three Gnawa musicians, their impassioned vocalising and vibrant rhythms the perfect foil to Itamar’s mercurial trumpet lines.
“Motherlands” was performed by the Borochov quartet and Innov Gnawa at the 2018 Winter Jazz Festival in New York City, an experience that inspired Itamar to write the following track “Maalem”, the title meaning “master musician” in the Gnawa tradition and in this case presumably named for Ben Jaafer. This is a quartet piece that is more obviously ‘jazz’ but retains Gnawic elements. There’s a melancholy vulnerability about Itamar’s trumpeting that recalls the ballad playing of Miles Davis plus something of the tenor sax inspired “airy, woody quality” that Borochov has spoken of aspiring to in his playing.
“Daasai” is named for the 7/4 groove that Sawyer lifted from a Yemenite dance rhythm. When combined with Clearfield’s insistent piano vamp this helps to give the music a feel something akin to the ‘spiritual jazz’ of John Coltrane, a quality reflected in Itamar’s impassioned trumpet soloing.
“Garden Dog Sleeps” is Itamar’s heavily disguised contrafact of the well known jazz standard “On Green Dolphin Street”. The leader’s trumpet skips lightly above the undertow created by brother Avri’s bass pulse, Clearfield’s economic piano chording and the gentle patter of Sawyer’s subtle but colourful drumming. Clearfield later steps out of the shadows with a succinct but highly imaginative piano solo.
The following “Broken Vessels” is rather more forceful, a rock inspired piece featuring the soaring, anthemic trumpeting of the leader allied to a powerful, virtuoso drumming performance from the excellent Sawyer with Clearfield’s Tyner-esque piano the glue holding it altogether. Itamar explains the concept behind the piece thus;
“’Broken Vessels is based on the spiritual concept that the world is divided into lights and vessels – there’s the Divine light, we are the vessel that can hold the light, but we’re all broken vessels”.
Indeed this notion of striving towards Divinity informs much of Itamar’s work, placing his music in a broadly ‘spiritual’ jazz lineage that began with John Coltrane, but with its roots in the music Israel, the Middle East and North Africa rather than the American South.
“Revolutionizin’” includes soloing opportunities for Avri Borochov and Clearfield, the bassist going first and exhibiting a rich tone and a strong melodic sense. The classically trained Clearfield positively sparkles as he stretches out on piano before handing over to the leader, whose pensive, slow burning solo continues to express “the search”. A word again, too, for Sawyer’s colourful, intelligent and responsive work behind the drum kit.
The album concludes with “Kol Haolam Kulo”, which translates as “Take Me To The Bridge”. The melody was written by Rabbi Baruch Chait in response to a 19th century homily by Rabbi Nachman of Breslov that states; “The whole world is a very narrow bridge, and the essence is not to fear at all.” To Itamar Borochov that bridge also represents a “bridge between cultures – that is me”
Itamar’s arrangement and playing brings out the full beauty of Chait’s melody while placing it in a musical setting reminiscent of Coltrane’s spiritual jazz as his trumpet probes gently above the rolling vamp established by Clearfield’s piano, Avri’s bass and Sawyer’s mallet rumbles and cymbal shimmers. Subsequently the piece gathers momentum and takes a more obviously ‘Middle Eastern’ turn, while still retaining the essential spirituality of the music, bridging cultures indeed. Fuelled by another virtuoso drumming performance from Sawyer the piece builds to a climax, before resolving itself with a gentler passage, instigated by Clearfield’s unaccompanied piano, that emphasises the beauty of Chait’s original melody.
Rooted in jazz but full of elements that even now still sound exotic to Western ears “Blue Nights” is a fascinating, multi faceted album. There’s a profound air of spirituality about the music, which is played by the quartet with an understated virtuosity and a simmering, low key intensity.
The Itamar Borochov Quartet is due to play at the 2019 EFG London Jazz Festival with a date at the Pizza Express Jazz Club in Holborn on the evening of Tuesday 20th November 2018, their only UK appearance at the beginning of a short European tour. It’s a show that I will be covering and it will be interesting to see if the group’s live performance reflects the nature of the recording or delivers something rather more combustible in the live environment.
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