Contact: Aaron Alexander
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New Tzadik album Midrash Mish Mosh Among Best of Recent Releases

“Alexander’s compact, no-nonsense drumming sustains a rhythmic touch point that serves as a reference for the others….He pulls a broad range of colors from his kit.”
Bob Blumenthal, The Boston Globe

“[Alexander has] superb technique and taste.”
Chris Kelsey, All Music Guide

“Alexander is an all-around musician whose playing, while often complicated, isn’t intrusive or heavy.”
Harvey Pekar

Aaron Alexander is one of the premier drummers in New York City, a first-call musician on the feverishly creative downtown scene who excels at playing modern jazz and a cross-pollinating pluralistic music based in a klezmer aesthetic that’s just too bold and free-wheeling for easy categorization. Whichever style he plays, this technically expert musician originally from Seattle animates his traps with a supreme confidence, an uncommonly rich musical imagination, and an almost palpable passion or tenderness.

Based in New York City since 1993, Alexander has involved himself in many high-quality jazz and Jewish music-oriented projects, both as bandleader and sideman. His career highlights to date include touring Europe numerous times with his collective trio Babkas, and the downtown super-group Hasidic New Wave, among others, supporting jazz-blues great Mose Allison in a week at Seattle’s Jazz Alley, driving the Klezmatics with interlocking rhythms at majestic Royal Festival Hall in London, and making his recently released feature album, Midrash Mish Mosh
Midrash Mish Mosh, on John Zorn’s Tzadik label, part of the“Radical Jewish Culture” series, explores in captivating fashion the surprising places where the Jewish folk music of eastern Europe becomes a world-embracing polyglot collage embracing Ornette Colemane’s Prime Time idiosyncratic jazz, African and Balkan music, and even punk rock. “It’s coming from the downtown New York milieu,” the drummer says, “where pretty much anything goes as far as source material to improvise on.”

The album’s music generally follows a raucous route, with its jazz phrasings, its unorthodox tonalities, its dizzying rhythms, and all its other wild yet artistic musical properties conveying a communicative joy. In addition to ringleader Alexander, these 21st century klezmorim-adventurers are Greg Wall on clarinet and saxophones, Merlin Shepherd on clarinet, Frank London on trumpet, Fima Ephron on bass, Curtis Hasselbring on trombone, Brad Shepik on guitar, and Mike Sarin on a second drum set, every one of them an outstanding player. (Alexander, Wall, London, and Ephron also belong to the internationally celebrated Hasidic New Wave band.)

Midrash Mish Mosh comes up trumps from start to close, its appeal extending far outside the Jewish community to anyone of any age anywhere whose ears are open to rollicking sounds that get feet dancing and challenge the intellect. Alexander, who wrote all the material, says the ecstatic song “Kleyzmish Moshpit” conjures “the trance state people get in the punk rock mosh pit and at the Orthodox weddings I play a lot in New York.” He should know—as a teenager in the Northwest, he drummed in a hard-core band opening for the likes of Black Flag, Butthole Surfers, and D.O.A.
“Kaddish for Carmen” is a striking prayer for his recently deceased mother-in-law that pulls back from any overtures to sentimentality with Shepik’s tension-releasing screaming electric guitar, and the dance “Peep Nokh a Mol,” with its dense horn parts and rhythms suggesting African origin, finds intensity and concentration, freedom and discipline going hand in hand in the octet’s wonderful playing. The organized chaos of “Balagan Balaban” projects a sense of mounting drama, topped by provocative guitar then whirling sax and trumpet; the song has stretches appropriate for, well, vertiginous merriment on a vodka-soaked dancefloor in a tavern in Moldovia.

Regarding “Debkavanah,” Alexander says, “If you play something with kavanah, you play it with a depth of intention. A Debka is a kind of Israeli dance, and a certain groove that goes with the dance.” The song, sporting a quirky melody to die for, is at once playful and intense: Merlin Shepherd’s clarinet hits peaks of delight, the two drummers shift tempos and moods across the song masterfully, and all the other revelers also cavort on a jagged knife edge. Unpredictable in movement and circusy in mood, “Yiddishe Kop” challenges the players to maintain a light touch while handling the intricacies of the demanding original music.

“Khosidl for the Mixed Marriage” has something of a serious mood—its composer says, “My wife is Filipina. The subject of mixed marriage in my family is a big one with a lot of history”—but ultimately it is as much music for fun as reflection, the braying clarinet and the horns particularly outstanding. Loyal to the klezmer tradition in form, “Der Rumsisker Maggid/Shema” impresses for the exquisitely calibrated emotion of the players in unison passages and in free improvisations. ”Khosn Kalleh Haskalah” offers still more proof of how facility of technique serves dancing, the excitement of the spiraling melodies matched in the witty language of the thoroughly Western guitar and in the giddy push and drive of the rhythm section.

Critical reaction to Midrash Mish Mosh has been enthusiastic. The Village Voice’s Jim Macnie wrote, “Alexander’s animated percussion style brings a sense of creative frenetics to his little big band” and “the drummer’s krazed klezmer swoops you off your feet.” Elliott Simon of All About Jazz-New York raved, “Alexander has produced a screaming celebration of the multicultural American Jewish identity.” All Music Guide’s Sean Westergaard affirmed, “This album…is fun and almost certain to get even the goys dancing,” and Jewish Week’s George Robinson gave the disc a “YYYY” (out of five) rating. Seth Rogovoy, in the New York Jewish weekly The Forward, praised the record as a “wild affair,” and, to cite but one more critic, Ari Davidov wrote on his website Klezmershack: “When we talk about Radical Jewish Music, meaning music that pushes the edges of what "Jewish Music" is, and that gets you excited about the idea, this is the music we're talking about.”

Alexander’s one other feature CD, Blues for Sparky--credited to the Aaron Alexander Sextet, issued in 2003, self-produced and distributed by North Country—showcased the drummer’s more straight-forward jazz inclinations, his melodically phrased, altogether sublime work in perfect communion with that of saxophonist Wall and four other superior jazz musicians: trumpeter Andy Gravish (his credits include Artie Shaw and Toshiko Akiyoshi), trombonist Ben Williams (George Coleman, Oliver Lake), pianist Mitch Schechter (Vic Juris), and bassist Brian Glassman (Lionel Hampton, Benny Golson).

In addition to pointing up Alexander’s prowess as a drummer, a bandleader and an arranger, Midrash Mish Mosh and Blues for Sparky give long rewarding looks at the progress he has made as a highly individualistic composer. “My compositional style is quirky,” he says. “Even when I try and write something that sounds like klezmer it always ends up sounding like myself.” He’s especially fond of the writing of Charles Mingus and Thelonious Monk, though he’s his own man compositionally, never imitative of those two jazz giants. All nine songs on Midrash Mish Mosh and all but one on Blues for Sparky are from Alexander’s pen. His songs have been recorded by Hasidic New Wave, the Kleztraphobix, and others.

Since relocating to the Big Apple in 1993, primed for the big league after Seattle-area studies with percussion master Jerry Granelli and working with Timebone, the Jay Clayton/Jim Knapp Collective and klezmer/swing outfit the Mazeltones, Alexander’s been a favorite of audiences for his contributions to various high-quality bands. Among his many past projects: the free bop-ish BABKAS guitar/alto/drums trio (three CDs, two European tours), Aaron Alexander’s Raggedy Time Band (a large ensemble; members included Mike Sarin and Curtis Hasselbring), and touring as the drummer with the Klezmatics.

Alexander’s also worked with jazz luminaries like guitarist Charlie Byrd and trombonist Julian Priester. A Seattle-and-NYC connection with jazz singer Jay Clayton found him contributing percussion and two compositions to her Sunnyside album Circle Dancing, which several dozen singers in a recent DownBeat article rated as one of the top thirty all-time best vocal jazz records. In addition to the media outlets mentioned above, Alexander’s special gift for music has been acknowledged in, to mention just a few media outlets, Rolling Stone, The Philadelphia Inquirer, L. A. Weekly, and The Detroit Times. And over the years he has performed all over the States, Canada, and most of the globe, from Amsterdam, Budapest, and Buenos Aires to Vancouver, Venice, and Zurich.

Some of Alexander’s current activities include playing with the Hasidic New Wave (since 1996), Greg Wall’s Later Prophets (the musical link between biblical days and the downtown present), and Frank London’s Klezmer Brass All-Stars (a band especially popular in Europe). He also stays busy leading his Midrash Mish Mosh gang in NYC club performances, working with Margot Leverett’s Klezmer/Bluegrass group, giving private lessons in his mid-town studio, holding school workshops for students of all ages, and participating as an instructor-musician at the annual summertime Klezkanada festival in Quebec.

Frank John Hadley, 2005