Siach HaSadeh are among the elite vanguard of jazz-inclined improvisers breathing new life into otherworldly old Hasidic melodies from centuries past. The Quebec-based band further distinguish themselves with their many haunting diversions into moody, mystical Middle Eastern sounds. Their latest album Song of the Grasses, a collection of exquisitely sad songs, exquisitely played, is streaming online, and the band has a whirlwind New York tour coming up. On March 4 they’ll be doing a set (plus a jam afterward) at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, 30 W. 68th St. at 7:30 PM; cover for the show is $15, more if you want the dance lesson or whatever else is happening beforehand, usually a lot at this place. Siach HaSadeh are also at Branded Saloon in Ft. Greene at 8 on March 5 followed at 9 by the more boisterous Breslov Bar Band. Then on March 6 they’ll be at Silvana, 300 W. 116th St at 8 PM as well.
Slow tempos and subdued, highly nuanced playing with minute dynamic shifts are the constants throughout the album’s seventeen tracks. Several of the instrumentals feature elegant handoffs from one instrument to the other; others employ a lot of intricate, sometimes awestruck harmony between Yoni Kaston’s clarinet, Joel Kerr’s bass and accordion, and Gael Huard’s cello. The group opens with Levi Yitzchak’s Berdichever’s Niggun, a droning dirge that pairs off clarinet with a darkly ambered string section throughout a series of slowly rising and falling waves. An alternate take at the end of the album finds the band working it with more sparseness and restraint, with a bit of a free jazz interlude before the melody coalesces again.
Kaston’s clarinet takes on an absolutely disconsolate cavatina-like tone on the brooding waltz Nigun firn di Tsadikkim in Gan Eyden, with a rich blend of harmonies between clarinet, Jason Rosenblatt’s harmonica and Ismail Fencioglu’s oud leading to an unexpectedly energetic but thematically spot-on bass solo. The pensively strolling Rabbeinu’s Niggun – reprised at the end of the album with a bit more oomph – opens with a spiky oud taqsim and then builds to a misterioso groove with the clarinet leading the way.
Dror Yikra contrasts rather blithe, blues-tinted harmonica with murky, low-key clarinet while the bass plays it as a bolero. Baal Shem Tov’s Niggun sets warily emphatic, sustained clarinet against a backdrop of sepulchral flickers from the strings, a dancing bass loop leading the tempo from tricky to straightforward as the clarinet and cello loom menacingly overhead. Yedid Nefesh weaves a web of rich, darkly ethereal harmonies between bass, clarinet and cello, while Menucha Vesimcha offers a rare, jaunty, harmonica-spiced interlude.
Oud and clarinet exchange somberly elegant phrases and then blend with the harmonica on Tolner Niggun, while the darkly dancing North African-tinged diptych Kuni Roni/Maggid’s Niggun might be the best if simplest track here: the oud’s ironically triumphant run down into the abyss midway through might be the album’s high point, such that it is.
There are also a handful of bass-and-clarinet duets: Song of the Seven Beggars, a minimalistic, swaying nocturnal waltz; Radishitz Niggun, a gorgeously otherworldly, Middle Eastern-tinged miniature; Kah Echshof, which brightens just a bit; Agadelcha, an ominously chromatic dark-sky theme that opens with an apprehensive low drone; Dveikus Niggun, which is as tight as it is darkly nebulous; and the album’s most strikingly minimalist track, Tfilas Tal. Is this the best album of the past several months? It’s certainly one of them, as darkly unforgettable as anything you’ll hear this year.
And if you like this stuff, you’ll want to check out Kaston’s intriguing, intense Turkish music duo Ihtimanska with talented multi-reedwoman Ariane Morin.