Atlanta’s 4th Ward Afro-Klezmer Orchestra are one of the most original bands on the planet. Part high-voltage klezmer ensemble, part Afrobeat dance band, part circus rock, with tinges of Ethiopian music and hip-hop, their latest album Abdul the Rabbi is one of the year’s best. It’s streaming all the way through at the group’s Bandcamp page. The mighty nine-piece group draws on Jewish music from around the world as well as African and Middle Eastern sounds, many times within the same song. It’s a wild ride.
They open Yemenite Tanz with an uneasy trill from the alto sax over lingering noir guitar chords and then the band comes in, blazing and pulsing, exchanging edgy riffs, with a couple of spine-tingling, menacing alto solos followed by an even more-spine-tingling, shivery one from trumpeter Roger Ruzow. They begin a number by klezmer clarinet legend Naftule Brandwein as a brisk, triumphantly fiery minor-key anthem and then morph it into a slinky New Orleans-flavored theme with a summery alto solo. Then they give a funk-punk edge to Fiddler on the Roof and take it into Mulatu Astatke territory.
The title track has emcee Zano Ludgood rapping over Ruzow’s biting Middle Eastern changes:
My merger murders the devious previous…
Both sides have claims to insanity
They both derive from the same family
What I have is chutzpah
Most likely it’ll lead to a fatwa
But it looks hopefully toward peace in the Middle East as it winds up.
Yesh Li Gan, a traditional, Middle Eastern-flavored tune which grows from eerie and somber to a toweringly orchestral anthem on the wings of multi-reedman Jeff Crompton’s arangement, might be the best song here. Toco Hills Kiddush Club, by Ruzow, works an anthenmic, cinematic, marchlike Ethiopiques groove, like a more klezmer-fueled Either/Orchestra. Doina Blues, by Crompton sets a similarly Ethiopian-tinged melody to a spare noir guitar blues with all kinds of intriguing moments: Ruzow’s trumpet shadowing the clarinet, a terse trombone solo and absolutely sizzling ones from the baritone sax and guitars, all the way up to where they take it doublespeed and suddenly it’s a powerhouse Afrobeat groove. The album ends with the cinematic, suspenseful Der Stazi (a reference to the feared former East German gestapo, maybe?), the horns exchanging voices with a conspiratorial defiance over burning guitar, up to a wailing guitar duel out. You want adrenaline? Give this a listen. Solos aren’t credited to individual players on the Bandcamp page, but it’s a sizzling effort from Crompton, Ruzow, multi-reedman Bill Nittler, tenor saxophonist Tony Staffiero, trombonist Nick Dixon, guitarists Colin Bragg and Edin Beho, bassist Kevin Scott and drummer Noah Kess. Count this among the most fascinatingly original and intense albums of the year.