A new release on John Zornâ€™s Tzadik label by clarinetist/composer/programmer Novik, Secrets of Secrets takes its place as the most recent installment in Tzadikâ€™s ongoing Radical Jewish Culture (RJC) series. Zorn has taken some undeserved heat for the RJC concept and has taken pains to explain that the â€śradicalâ€ť is at least as important as the â€śJewish.â€ť So you donâ€™t get a free pass if you just happen to be a Jewish musician who makes pleasant, mainstream music. Critics who zero in on Zornâ€™s notoriously prickly personality also tend to miss his humor. After all, this is the label impresario who identified Marc Bolan of T. Rex as a great Jewish composer (along with Burt Bacharach) and released a RJC recording of various artists interpreting Bolanâ€™s body of work. (And itâ€™s a damn fine recording, by the way.)
There should be no controversy, though, regarding Aaron Novikâ€™s ties with Jewish culture â€“ nor with the radical nature of his musical enterprise on this CD. He actually taught himself Hebrew in order to read a mystic Kabbalistic text written by 13th century Rabbi Eleazer Rokeach, which has no English translation. Rokeachâ€™s work was motivated by the slaughter of his wife and three children during the crusades and his subsequent attempt to find God in a world of chaos and brutality. So this is serious business. And musically, the five long pieces on the CD often have elements of Ashkenazi (Eastern Jewish) dance rhythms, although there are a number of â€śfreeâ€ť sections (particularly â€śSecrets of the Holy Nameâ€ť) which do not employ a steady pulse.
But to paraphrase the famous commercial for Levyâ€™s Rye Bread, you donâ€™t have to be Jewish to enjoy Novikâ€™s music. All you need is an open mind and a good set of ears. Rabbi Rokeach was a seeker and Aaron Novik is likewise a seeker. For that matter, John Coltrane was a seeker, as are many musicians who strive to go beyond the world of appearances and reach for something more enduring. Novik simply uses the sacred texts as inspiration for his personal musical explorations. And while Novik plays electric clarinet, percussion and handles programming, he has lots of help with the music. Substantial contributions are made by the Jazz Mafia Horns (a brass quartet), by the Real Vocal String Quartet, by two members of Sleepytime Gorilla Museum (Carla Kihlstedt on electric violin, Matthias Bossi on bass), by veteran clarinetist Ben Goldberg, peripatetic out-guitarist Fred Frith and several others. The noise they make is not always joyful, but itâ€™s powerful and mesmerizing to say the least.
The opening section, Secrets of Creation, is perhaps the most overtly classical, at least initially. It begins with a solitary pizzicato bass, then a low, brooding melody from the string quartet. A trombone is added while the melody because slightly more dissonant (think Bartok or Schoenberg). Tympani signals a dramatic, repeating six-note pattern for horns and woodwinds, with percussion boiling in the background. The pattern accelerates and fades, eventually replaced by a distorted electric violin (or guitar?) solo, supported by a deep bass pulse provided by something called a â€śrobot bass clarinet.â€ť A horn fanfare is added, the strings re-enter and everything builds to a glorious cacophony before subsiding into delicate chimes. This is powerful, unclassifiable stuff which is not really rock, jazz, classical or ethnic, but a continually evolving combination of all four.
Most of the sonic elements in the first section are utilized in the remaining sections, but Novikâ€™s writing ensures that itâ€™s not just â€śmore of the same.â€ť The second section, Secrets of the Divine World, opens with a lively Jewish dance melody. Violin and distorted electric guitar add a minimalist riff while hand percussion (dumbek) enhances the ethnic vibe. This section ends with an extended bit of free-form atmospherics, where Novikâ€™s clarinet mingles with and is massaged by various electronic treatments. Section four, Secrets of the Holy Name, is the most experimental and impressionistic piece on the program, showing off electric guitarist Fred Frithâ€™s inventive attack and combining his wails and howls with waves of electronic noise, together with growling trombones.
However, the overall approach of Secrets of Secrets is almost relentlessly percussive, anchored by the intriguing, rubbery sound of the robot bass clarinetâ€™s steady pulse and at times an almost tribal element from the percussion. Minimalist riffs sometimes suggest a more ragged, emotionally charged Phillip Glass and also sometimes approximate the fevered chamber rock of Univers Zero. The final section, Secrets of Formation, shows off all of Novikâ€™s gifts as composer and arranger, opening with two interlocking, ascending riffs, pounding drums and then a gradually emerging counterpoint of drones, bubbling electronics, gongs and tubular bells â€“ finally easing off at the eleven minute mark when the percussion drops out and the ascending riff is picked up by pizzicato strings, to which is added an eerie, Theremin-sounding instrument ( probably Frithâ€™s treated guitar) and a gentle, descending riff from other members of the string quartet. The overall effect is nothing short of astounding.
I donâ€™t really think itâ€™s a stretch to say the Novik has created a masterpiece here. Secrets of Secrets is not only a powerful and deeply spiritual composition, but its improvisational style almost guarantees that it cannot be duplicated â€“ even by Novik himself. This is a rare piece of music which is both mind-altering and truly unique.