New album by trumpeter Ben Holmes explores Jewish music
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New album by trumpeter Ben Holmes explores Jewish music

Musician explores the "Freygish scale"

Naked Lore is Ben Holmes (trumpet), Brad Shepik (guitar) and Shane Shanahan (percussion). Photo by Caroline Mardok
Naked Lore is Ben Holmes (trumpet), Brad Shepik (guitar) and Shane Shanahan (percussion). Photo by Caroline Mardok

With “Naked Lore,” Ben Holmes’ third album as a leader, the trumpeter decided to devote himself to exploring what makes Jewish music sound Jewish.

The short answer is the Freygish scale, which is essentially a harmonic minor scale with a flatted second note, or a note that instead of being a whole step away from the first note in the scale is just a half-step. Hence, the Freygish half-step.

Often called the “Jewish mode,” a common misconception is that Freygish melodies pertain specifically, and exclusively, to Ashkenazi musical traditions. They figure prominently in Sephardic, Balkan, Roma and several Middle Eastern musical cultures, too, and some have argued their origins may actually not be Jewish — or at least not Jewish in the sense that we think.

Musical historians like Yale Strom and Abraham Idelsohn have suggested that rather than originating in the Jewish communities of Central and Eastern Europe, the musical rudiments that make folk idioms like klezmer “sound Jewish” likely originated many centuries earlier, in the Middle East.

For the wryly witty Holmes who, having been raised in a mixed-faith home with a decidedly non-Jewish sounding last name, has grappled with his own Jewish identity, there is an irony at work here that he particularly enjoys.

“I love the idea of being a guy who is often perceived as non-Jewish, but is,” he said, “while exploring a sound that is often identified strongly as Jewish, but isn’t.”

To put a finer point on things, it’s not that the sound Holmes explores on “Naked Lore” isn’t Jewish; it’s that it isn’t just Jewish.

Holmes is one of just a handful of musicians to have played klezmer every which way. For straight-ahead klez, see his work on powerhouse clarinetist Michael Winograd’s latest recording, “Kosher Style.” The two have also partnered to front the Tarras Band, a sextet assembled in tribute to the clarinetist and klezmer-revivalist Dave Tarras.

Meanwhile, Holmes has played regularly with klez fusionists Slavic Soul Party! and Inna Barmash’s Romashka for years.

With “Naked Lore,” though, it’s clear from the trio format and slightly unorthodox instrumentation of trumpet, guitar (Ben Shepik) and percussion (Shane Shanahan) that Holmes is after a different trumpet sound. One that is more Miles Davis and less Earth, Wind & Fire. More lyrical improvisation and fewer of the recursive riffs and static dynamics associated with ensemble and section playing.

Dynamics that are sufficiently varied and nuanced so as to suggest connection with narrative underpinnings — “Naked Lore,” Holmes said, is to be the soundtrack of Jewish folk history, from the ancient to the contemporary to a future yet to be conceived; from the Middle East to the shtetl to the Diaspora.

These stylistic changes aren’t arbitrary and capricious but in line with Holmes’ evolving musical and anthropological interests. Holmes, who’s gone mainstream as a sideman for Vampire Weekend and Gogol Bordello, has seemingly gone off the reservation without reservation here, intent to explore the ancient musical origins that birthed the music we think of as Jewish, as well as all those related strains without which Jewish music could not be.

In its grandeur and scope and sprawl, “Naked Lore” actually is quite literary; that it seeks to evoke narrative is not surprising. Though, it’s less of a plot-driven page-turner than an epic book of ideas. The album announces itself as a musical history of a world, but, deep down, it really aspires to be a musical history of the world.

The trio’s exploration, inversion and subversion of Freygish motifs is as thorough as advertised — and, yet, there’s a lot more, let’s call it texture, here. Holmes is too well schooled in too many modes not to give the listener at least a small taste of everything in his arsenal.

While the majority of the album’s compositions (all originals) are loosely foregrounded in Semitic motifs, nearly every track is the product of intermarriage.

Boleros cohabitating with driving Balkan grooves. New Wave-influenced horas shacking up with distinct Flamenco flavors. Post-bop and the Portuguese 12-string guitar taking it slow, first casually acknowledging each other’s existence then falling into a torrid love affair.

Conventional wisdom might dictate that combining these ostensibly disparate musical influences will be something like putting all your favorite foods between two slices of bread and expecting that sandwich to taste good. And then you ask yourself: “Wait, why wasn’t that supposed to taste good again?” pjc

Matt Silver is a staff writer for the Jewish Exponent. He lives in Philadelphia.

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