2009 should be a watershed year for Cuban born composer, percussionist, and bandleader Roberto Juan Rodriguez. Timba Talmud is his second release for John Zorn's Tzadik in five months and his fifth for the label overall. Whereas his First Basket served as the soundtrack to a documentary film on the origins of American basketball, Timba Talmud is more properly a Latin klezmer offering. No, there's typo there. Over the course of 13 cuts, Rodriguez and his sextet offer cha-chas, pachangas, mambos, boleros, sons, and salsas wedded inseparably with the Yiddish folk tradition of klezmer. The band includes the brilliant clarinetist Gilad Harell, accordionist Uri Sharlin (who also plays piano and organ), violinist Jonathan Keren, bassist Bernie Minoso, conguero Igor Arias Baro, Rodriguez playing a drum kit and hand percussion, as well as handling the programming chores on one cut. In addition to the Sexteto are four guests including guitarist Oz Noy, trumpeter Oscar Onoz, Ben Lapidus on tres, and flutist Itai Kris. A prime example of the literal genius used here is on "EL Sabor Del Shabat." Here, son and clave rhythms under score a mournful Yiddish ballad. The Afro-Cuban rhythms seem an original part of the melody's architecture they are so seamless. The lilting violins, the singing, mournful clarinet, the accordion and piano pines entwined harmonically and rhythmically offer such a wide palette for such an intimate and spiritual song, they are dazzling despite the slow tempo. The bridge breaks into a gorgeous cha-cha to boot!
Rodriguez is hard at work on something here. Not merely a fusion, but the fusion of Afro-Cuban music with klezmer. Over the course of his five recordings he has gradually erased the lines, become more and more organic in his approach, and allowed the two age-old traditions to come together as a single new one, raised in the New York streets. Check out "The Son of 2nd Avenue," where a complex, modern salsa gives feet to the Yiddish rhythms and modalities, with farfisa organ, twinned fiddle line, and congas and bongos popping in and around the main clave rhythm. Harell's clarinet soars and swoops over the entire proceeding as the violin adds elements of gypsy swing to the mix for a heady brew of sounds and textures, even more so on the more driving "Oran Oran," where three different rhythms assert themselves on the clave, and the melody line becomes a counter to each. The vocal chorus in the middle of the track is a chock, but accents what a burner this is. Ray Barretto and Dave Karasony would be proud. Timba Talmud is more evidence that Rodriguez is coming on stronger, into his own, and creating his own brand in the Radical Jewish Culture music of New York. This music's appeal comes from the grand scale of its colors, textures, themes, and beats, beats, beats. There isn't anything else like it out there.