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In producing Jewish music, trombonist Rafi Malkiel found inspiration in water

Alexander Gelfand
June 24, 2010
Rafi Malkiel with his aguaphonium.(Photo: Sandra Kratc)
Rafi Malkiel with his aguaphonium.(Photo: Sandra Kratc)

When John Zorn invited the Israeli trombonist and composer Rafi Malkiel to record an album exploring his Jewish roots for Zorn’s Tzadik label, Malkiel was delighted. He was also stumped.

“I don’t know how to do Jewish music,” Malkiel told me; which is ironic, because he seems to know how to do everything else, from straightahead jazz to Middle Eastern music and salsa. (A mainstay of the Latin music scene in his adopted city of New York, Malkiel has been called “el virtuoso judio del bombardino”—“the Jewish virtuoso of the euphonium.” Shortly after we spoke, he played in the Seventh Annual Encounter of Colombian Musicians at El Museo del Barrio in Harlem.) “What’s Jewish music anyways?” he asked, posing a question that is often raised but never really answered.

For Water, Malkiel decided to take the long view. “Jewish people live all over, and everywhere they live, their culture is mixed with the [local] tradition.” In other words, everything is fair game—from the music he inherited from his parents, who immigrated to Israel from the Moroccan city of Meknes, to the Egyptian and Lebanese songs he heard growing up in Jerusalem, and the jazz, classical, and Latin music he has studied and played professionally.

It’s an eclectic mix, but hardly a scattershot one. Malkiel doesn’t just throw all of this stuff together helter-skelter; he obviously knows a lot about each genre, and he has a knack for combining them without sounding gimmicky. No matter how often Water switches stylistic gears, the whole thing remains tied together by a guiding musical intelligence—one that expresses itself in sophisticated arrangements, carefully modulated changes in texture and dynamics, and catchy melodies that never seem to resolve where you expect.

And did I mention the water?

“Drink of Spring” begins with the sound of something wet pouring into a glass, only to be followed by Malkiel’s best shot at “a klezmer band from New Orleans.” (To me, it sounds like early Duke Ellington with a Yiddish accent.) “I was thinking of an old Polish Jew who’s had a few drinks, and he’s stumbling,” Malkiel says. “I told the musicians, ‘Play like you’re drunk,’ and they said, ‘No problem!’ ” There’s nothing sloppy about the performance, though, which segues smoothly into a fast, odd-metered bit that’s meant to evoke a Bulgarian Jewish wedding.

“Waves,” meanwhile, opens with a sample of the surf lapping against the shores of Tel Aviv, then slides into a duet for tenor saxophone and clarinet that evolves into a full-blown neoclassical interlude for reeds and brass. (The ensemble that Malkiel assembled for Water includes bassoon, bass clarinet, trumpet, and flute, along with his own trombone, tuba, and euphonium.) The reggae tune “Eden Rain” is ushered in by the sound of a rainstorm. Only “Desert,” whose spinning melodic lines and Egyptian-derived rhythms recall the East-West fusions of the Lebanese oud player Rabih Abou-Khalil, is completely dry.

Malkiel goes well beyond audio samples, however, and turns water into an integral part of the ensemble. On the joyous Afro-Cuban “Aguanile Mai” (the name comes from a Yoruba chant in honor of Ogun, the god of war and metal), you can hear the unmistakable sound of hands slapping water mixed in with the Latin percussion. And “Meet My Sweet Little Sea Monsters in Aguaphonium Land” features a watery instrument of Malkiel’s own invention.

Instructions for building your own aguaphonium: First, cut off a length of garden hose. Then, attach a mouthpiece to one end and a funnel to the other. Finally, stick the funnel into a tub of water and blow. “The recording engineer thought I was totally nuts,” Malkiel says.

And yet it worked. By overdubbing multiple aguaphonia in various ranges, Malkiel was able to create a kind of imaginary aquatic choir: a pod of fictitious sea creatures, burbling and bubbling to one another across the deep.

Given the symbolic weight that water carries in Judaism and elsewhere—the second verse of Genesis, the flood, the parting of the Red Sea, the emergence of “Kabbalah water” as a celebrity energy drink and radiator fluid—it’s easy to divine a grand spiritual theme at work. And the sequential pairing of “River Blue” and “Water Prayer” would seem to bear this out. The first, a slinky minor blues with a Middle Eastern vibe, begins with Malkiel playing cantor to the other horns’ chorus; and the second, in which Malkiel plays and sings at the same time, aims to capture the feeling not only of a muezzin’s call to prayer, but of a church choir, as well.

Yet for the most part, Malkiel had in mind the more general properties of water: its ubiquity and indispensability. “The cliché of water is of life. But it’s not a cliché, it’s a fact,” Malkiel says. “If someone is hurt, you give them water. You sweat, you cry—it’s water. There’s water in everything; let’s find it in music.”

And find it he does, even if he has to put it there himself. The results command attention, both because the sounds Malkiel invents are so unusual, and because his music occasionally becomes so deep, you can hardly see the bottom.

Even naked, the melody to “Eden Rain” would be lovely; clad in Caribbean rhythms, garlanded with countermelodies, it becomes utterly ravishing. On “Gilgool,” hints of Latin and Middle Eastern music give way to a middle section whose chromatic harmonies and groovy bass ostinato bring to mind the Dave Holland Quintet at its most mesmerizing. And the oriental theme of “River Blue” leads to a rhythm-plus-tenor jam that recalls the classic John Coltrane Quartet, with Chris Karlic’s solo veering from the incantatory to the incendiary. (Other improvised gems include Itai Kriss’ serpentine flute solo on “Desert” and Pablo Mayor’s startling piano turn on “Mai Eden.”)

Talking about his affinity for Latin culture—“Israelis and Latinos have a lot in common; it’s a similar temperament, similar weather, similar food”—Malkiel makes the point that Latin music “is not only intellectual, but very danceable, and very sensual.” He might as well be talking about his own music.

If he could just figure out how to bottle the stuff, he’d make a fortune.

Alexander Gelfand is a recovering ethnomusicologist, a sometime jazz pianist, and a former West African drummer. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Forward, and elsewhere.

Alexander Gelfand is a recovering ethnomusicologist, a sometime jazz pianist, and a former West African drummer. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Forward, and elsewhere.