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Friday, October 9, 2015

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Zebrina pushes musical boundaries

Tags: Arts
The band Zebrina includes, from left, Bret Higgins, Joel Schwartz, Jon Feldman, Colin Kingsmore and Max Senitt. (Peter Lutek joined the band after this photo was taken.) [Asli Alin photo]

Since Zebrina’s first album release in 2010, Jonathan Feldman has been connecting with his musical heroes.

Soon, he’ll spend a weekend working with one of those heroes, clarinettist Ben Goldberg, recording Zebrina’s sophomore album, The Desert Speaks.

“[Goldberg] is a hero in the world of klezmer music and maybe avant-garde klezmer music,” Feldman said. “He is probably the most important player of our time.”

Feldman, on keyboards, with his band, Peter Lutek on clarinet; Bret Higgins on electric bass; Joel Schwartz on electric guitar; Colin Kingsmore on drums, and Max Senitt on drums and percussion will perform with Goldberg at Toronto’s Music Gallery on May 23, the day before they go into the studio to record the new album.

Having an acclaimed klezmer artist on the new album, to be released this fall, will add credibility to the band, Feldman said, although Zebrina has successfully built a fan base since its inception.

The band was started when Higgins met Feldman in 2007, both mature students at the time at the University of Toronto, and was later developed through a monthly residency at the local club, Gate 403, in 2009.

The path to Goldberg’s involvement began shortly after the release of Zebrina’s first album, Trail of the Hunter-Gatherers, when Feldman got in touch with avant-garde musician John Zorn. Feldman said he has been a fan of Zorn’s since the mid-90s, when Feldman first heard Zorn’s band, Masada.

“Here was this music that’s identifiably Jewish… but the improv was completely avant-garde,” Feldman said, describing Zorn as leading the most recent wave of klezmer music. “I had never conceived before of Jewish jazz… [but] that’s how I started listening to klezmer.”

Feldman gushed about his partnership with Zorn, who he said has been incredibly supportive and helpful, putting him in contact with other Jewish musicians and adding the band to his label, Tzadik Records.

“He’s the most endearing guy to talk to, he calls me bubbelah,” Feldman said. Oddly enough, although Zorn supports Zebrina and will distribute the new album once it’s released, Zorn and Feldman have never met in person – their whole professional relationship has been conducted over the Internet and phone. Feldman described it as “something else to dream about,” that is, one day meeting Zorn.

Feldman called the May 23 performance with Goldberg a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and one that Toronto klezmer fans shouldn’t miss out on.

Zebrina performs monthly at Toronto’s Tranzac club, which he said usually draws enough people to fill the venue – around 50 people – but the Music Gallery holds about triple that number.

Despite having built a fan base in Toronto, Feldman admitted that it’s hard to stand out there, considering how many independent artists work in the city. Also, it’s sometimes easier to draw a crowd in Europe where people are more interested in being exposed to new types of music – plus when he plays there, he’s considered an international artist, and therefore a little more exotic, he said.

Still, he wouldn’t describe his music as completely avant-garde. Instead, he called it a fusion of klezmer, jazz and world music that pushes the boundaries of the genres. Feldman grew up idolizing jazz artists like Miles Davis, but blending in klezmer sounds to other types of music adds another dimension – in particular, adding “freygish scales” to the mix of major and minor sounds, he said..

“Minor scales are sad, major scales are happy,” he said, “but Jewish music, it’s kind of a mix – the major third of the scale sound happy but the flat second of the scale sounds kind of sad.”

That’s the sound that draws him to that kind of music, he said. He described it as a reflection of Jewish history – happy but with a tinge of sadness in it.

“That’s what makes it really meaningful to me to play that music,” he said, adding that he’s spent years dedicating himself to developing his sound. “All I do is play and compose music.

“I try to write new Jewish music. I try to tie myself back to Jewish roots,” he said. “I’m going to listen to that music but not copy any of it at all, and I’ll see what I can come up with it on my own.

“That’s what a composer does, tries to move forward.”

Zebrina will perform with Goldberg on May 23 at the Music Gallery at 7:30 p.m. For more information, visit


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