For the members of Jump Babylon, Jewish music doesn’t have to sound traditional. In fact, the seven musicians, four of whom are also members of Shtreiml, a veteran Jewish music group in Montreal, are mixing their Jewish and klezmer influences with rock and roll and reggae elements.
“I would say it’s essentially a rock album with lyrics inspired by the Jewish experience, and [it] blends Neil Young angst with chassidic wedding sensibilities,” said the band’s composer and producer Jason Rosenblatt, 39, of Jump Babylon’s debut album Soldier Woman.
In addition to writing most of the music, Roseblatt plays keys and harmonica, and also sings for the band. He is joined by his wife, trombone player Rachel Lemisch, guitarist and lead singer Adam Stotland, drummer Thierry Arsenault, bassist Joel Kerr, trumpet player James Rhodes and saxophone player Andrew Skowronski.
Rosenblatt, Lemisch, Arsenault and Stotland got their start, along with fellow musician Michael Winograd, as Shtreiml in 2002, playing klezmer music at bars, festivals and weddings. The band quickly gained a following, performing in North America, Europe and Israel.
For Rosenblatt, learning to play klezmer was simply another part of his extensive musical education. “Everyone in my family plays an instrument,” he said, adding that, because there isn’t an abundance of Jewish musicians in Montreal, he and his family were approached to take part in the city’s Jewish music scene.
Rosenblatt began by playing the blues on piano and harmonica, later studying jazz piano in Israel, where he lived for about five years. He also joined KlezKanada, a Quebec-based organization dedicated to fostering Jewish art and culture.
“That’s what got me really into klezmer,” Rosenbaltt said of KlezKanada, where he is now a staff member.
Although he has been a professional musician for years, Rosenblatt continues to study and improve his playing skills. A grant given to him by the Canada Council for the Arts in recognition of his musical achievements gave him the opportunity to study harmonica with Grammy Award-winning musician and harmonica master Howard Levy.
Levy helped Rosenblatt learn to play a diatonic harmonica chromatically, meaning that he can use a special technique to produce many more notes than the harmonica was created to play. This technique is only practised by a handful of people in the world.
“It’s a difficult instrument in the sense that nothing’s visual in the instrument – everything happens in your mouth,” Rosenblatt said of learning to master the harmonica.
The technique he has learned for harmonica playing has allowed Rosenblatt to use the instrument in nearly every style of music, including klezmer, jazz and even Turkish music.
Despite the reputation for klezmer Rosenblatt earned with Shtreiml, he and the band often played rock and roll covers during their gigs. The covers were popular with their audiences and, about a year ago, the band members decided to pursue their love of rock under a separate band name to keep their different music styles distinct.
It was then that Jump Babylon was born. “We wanted something that sounded fun, like ‘jump,’ and something that sounded biblical, like ‘Babylon,’” Rosenblatt said with a laugh, explaining that the band name was chosen from a long list of possibilities created during a band brainstorming session.
Keeping a “biblical” aspect was important to Rosenblatt, as Jump Babylon’s music may have a rock and roll edge, but it is still distinctly Jewish. The lyrics paraphrase Jewish texts or tell stories of the Jewish immigrant experience in Canada. Even the album’s name, Soldier Woman, is a reference to Eshet Chayil, Woman of Valour, from the Book of Proverbs.
“The hard part was the lyrics, sitting down and saying, ‘How Jewish do I want to get, how personal do I want to get, will it be literal translations?’” Rosenblatt said.
The fourth track on the album, Canada, which Rosenblatt wrote, tells a story common to many Jews. The lyrics speak about Holocaust survivors who moved to Canada with nothing, started a family and a successful business, but still never forgot the terrors they experienced in Europe.
This story is similar to that of Rosenblatt’s grandparents and the grandparents of his friends. “A lot of people feel a Jewish connection through their grandparents,” he said, adding that, when he discusses Judaism with new friends, the conversation often turns to one’s family roots. “The first thing you say is, ‘Where are your grandparents from?’”
The result of Jump Babylon’s effort to fuse Judaism and rock is unique and catchy. “I wanted to do something original,” Rosenblatt said, and he and the band certainly accomplished that goal.
Jump Babylon debuted Soldier Woman on Aug. 28, as a part of the annual Montreal Jewish Music Festival.
The band will be playing several local shows in October and November and going on a tour through Canada and the United States in 2013.
Rosenblatt and his wife will be bringing their three young children on tour with them. “We pack them all in the car… and we schlep,” he said with a laugh.
For Rosenblatt and his musical family, touring is just part of a job he loves. “I consider myself extremely, extremely fortunate to make a career [of music.]”
For more information on Jump Babylon and Soldier Woman, please visit jumpbabylon.com.