A Gorgeous, Lyrical Middle Eastern-Inspired Jazz Album From Lena Bloch
Tenor saxophonist Lena Bloch‘s latest album Rose of Lifta – streaming at Soundcloud – explores the theme of exile, as articulated by Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, someone considerably familiar with the concept. Lifta, the Israeli village referenced in the album title, survived demolition in the 1948 naqba. Let us hope that it will remain intact.
The songs on the album do justice to Darwish, widely regarded during his life as the voice of the Palestinians. Bloch’s Feathery ensemble includes Russ Lossing on piano, Cameron Brown on bass and Billy Mintz on drums. Bloch’s embrace of Middle Eastern modes is strong and striking, and her bandmates clearly relish the chance to play her poignant themes. This could be the most outside-the-box album any of them have ever made.
They open with the epic Promise of Return. Lossing plays lingering, glittering and eventually scrambling riffs as Mintz uses his toms to mimic the boom of a Middle Eastern dumbek. Bloch makes her way through terse, assertive, incisive riffs that wind down to a dusky hush. floating and weaving overhead. Then she hits a crescendo and turns the spotlight over to Brown for an enigmatically prowling solo before the Palestinian theme returns. Tarek Yamani’s work comes to mind. What a gorgeous way to open the album.
Mad Mirror musically reflects two of Darwish’s signature devices: allusion and absence. Listen closely and you can hear Bloch’s poignant, spare opening solo resonating in Lossing’s piano. From there he builds to firm blocks of chords and jauntily rippling phrases as Brown feels the ancient walls for a crevasse or two.
New Home, the first of three Lossing tunes, has a wary swing, disquietingly allusive chordal work and an implied 12/8 groove; the bandleader sits this one out til her warily optimistic solo midway through as Mintz adds subtly shuffling brushwork and Brown anchors it with a subtle, balletesque pulse.
The album’s centerpiece, Climbing Rose of Lifta is a portrait of indomitability, the flower peeking up from inside the piano, Bloch broodingly contemplating the climb ahead over Lossing’s somber glimmer. Mintz signals a sober, marching determination, Bloch pulling the group back to reflectively distant disquiet and a considerably more somber, striding theme.
After Brown runs a catchy solo verse of Old Home, the second Lossing tune, a chill filters in beneath the pianist’s somewhat mutedly hypnotic, otherworldly lines while Bloch threads animatedly in between. more of a poltergeist than a ghost. Lossing’s darkly majestic, shifting modes as he rises and recedes are absolutely luscious.
The quartet return to a march, if more haggardly in Bloch’s final number here, simply titled Mahmoud Darwish. Brown bowine eerie harmonies with Bloch, Mintz driving the weary caravan to an oasis animated by Lossing’s spirals and hammering stairsteps. Bloch emerges resolutely and smolders amid increasing entropy. The majestic climb toward a strong, united front echoes Amir ElSaffar‘s most dramatic recent work.
The album closes with a Lossing number, Wintry Mix, a return to chilly 12/8 empty-room reflection but with more pastoral tinges. Bloch parses steady chromatics over Brown’s terse pedalpoint and Lossing’s splashes and resonance before he takes the theme deeper into the desert, and then out with a flourish. This will resonate thematically with any musically adventurous ex-New Yorker – or ex-Californian, Oregonian, Rhode Islander or anyone else – forced to flee to a new home in one of the free states.