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Sounds Jewish with Zion80’s Jon Madof

The Feinstein Center had a chance to catch up with Zion80′s Jon Madof to talk about the band’s latest album, the “Jewish music scene” today, and more. Take a read, take a listen, and then come join us at World Cafe Live on Thursday, September 18 for preshow cocktails, conversation, and tunes at 7pm. Tickets here.

1. Zion80 has just released a new album, Adramelech (Tzadik Records, 2014), based upon John Zorn’s Book of Angels, vol. 22. For the uninitiated among us, tell us what this means. Are you covering John Zorn’s music, reinterpreting it, making it your own? And what does the album title mean?

Zion80’s new CD is part of the Book of Angels series, which is part of the larger Masada Songbook by composer and instrumentalist John Zorn. The whole project consists of 613 songs written over the last 20 years by Zorn. The initial recordings of the material were made by his Masada Quartet but that soon expanded into several other ensembles including the Masada String Trio, the Bar Kokhba ensemble and Electric Masada. About 10 years ago, Zorn began the second phase of the project, the Book of Angels. He has commissioned a different ensemble to record each album in the series. Other artists include Pat Metheny, Erik Friedlander, Uri Caine and Medeski, Martin and Wood. Zion80’s CD, Adramelech, is volume 22. All of the song and CD titles in the Book of Angels are names of angels from various sources in the Jewish tradition.

2. Your first album has been described as Shlomo Carlebach meets Afrobeat funk. Why the marriage of the two? What was the inspiration for bringing together these different traditions? And since the release of the album in 2013, has anything surprised you about its reception?

The initial idea for Zion80 came to me rather spontaneously in 2011 after I had been listening for several hours to Fela Kuti’s music. I was getting ready to take my kids to shul (synagogue) on Shabbat morning and started humming a song by Shlomo Carlebach. The drum patterns of Fela’s music were still in my head from the day before, and the light bulb went off!

I put together a band modeled after Fela’s ensembles, drawing from musicians I’ve gotten to know since moving to New York in 2000. I had been recording for several years with my trio, Rashanim, on Tzadik Records (Zorn’s label). I approached Zorn about releasing a CD of Zion80 playing the music of Shlomo Carlebach, and he was very receptive to it. Our debut CD was released in 2013.

The reception has been amazing – the audiences we’ve played for are very enthusiastic, the press has been great, and we’ve had some amazing experiences traveling to Europe and playing in some amazing venues in New York City including Town Hall and The Village Vanguard.

3. Let’s switch gears to talk about making a living as a musician. Not easy, right? Does the fact that your music can be categorized as Jewish make a difference? Does it open new opportunities or consumer bases? And does it foreclose others?

I make a living from music as well as other work, doing graphic and web design. Since I have a limited amount of time to work on music, I have to prioritize my time very carefully. With Zion80, I spend most of the time working on the music itself, writing, arranging and recording. I also do the vast majority of management, marketing and publicity for the group. So there may be opportunities that we haven’t yet explored, but which could be very fruitful. Thankfully there’s been interest in the band, and many of our performances have been opportunities that came to me because someone heard about us, rather than me seeking them out.

So far, the band has primarily played in either Jewish-focused venues or jazz-focused venues. In the future I’d love to also bring the band into more rock-oriented venues and festivals, as well as those catering to ‘world music.’

4. Any thoughts on the Jewish music scene (however you’d like to define it) today? Where’s it going? Is it transforming Jewish life? How?

The Jewish music scene that Zion80 is a part of in New York City primarily involves the other bands on the Tzadik Records label: Pitom, Abraxas, Edom and bands outside of New York like Dveykus, Zebrina, AutorYno and others. There are also connections to other bands like the Klezmatics, Hasidic New Wave and The Afro-Semitic Experience. All of these groups have roots in the traditions of Jewish music, but are pushing the music forward in their own ways.

I’d like to see more connections happening to other areas of Jewish music, like the traditional klezmer scene, Jewish-oriented rock music, etc. That’s happening in some important ways, like in the Ashkenaz Festival in Toronto, where Zion80 recently performed. But there’s still a lot of separation between different scenes.

I’m not sure if the music is transforming Jewish life, although I’d like to think it plays a part. Zion80 was formed to play music and doesn’t really have any other goal or agenda than to do that in the best way that we can. It’s certainly not music for any one particular group of people; it’s there for whoever wants to listen and take part. I certainly make the music from a place informed by my Jewish identity, but the purpose of the music is the music itself.

5. Finally, send us something to listen to!

You can find some of our music at http://zion80.com/sounds/

There’s a preview of our new CD, Adramelech, here:

And here’s a video of Zion80 performing at the 2013 Krakow Jewish Culture Festival: