RMI Records is proud to announce the release of Pirkei Avot, Vol. 2 by guitarist and composer Amanda Monaco. She expands upon the group’s 2011 debut in these sonic explorations of 3rd Century Jewish texts. This is Monaco’s sixth album under her own name (not including co-leadership of ensembles Playdate and Lioness) and first her first release on vinyl, featuring Dave Kopperman’s intricate cover art.
A convert to Judaism in her early twenties, Monaco discovered the Pirkei Avot, a collection of rabbinical wisdom (also known as “Ethics of the Jewish Sages”), 15 years ago and was struck by what she calls its “timeless wisdom”. She set about studying multiple interpretations, most notably Siddur Sim Shalom (the prayerbook used by Conservative Jewish synagogues) as well as a modern interpretation by Rabbi Rami Shapiro conveying a more universal meaning. The eclectic music, inspired by selected verses and, in many instances, directly adapting Hebrew passages for use as lyrics, deftly achieves a balance between tradition and modernity. The ensemble has been equally welcomed in jazz venues and temples, connecting with a variety of curious listeners through its mélange of Middle Eastern sounds and acoustic jazz juxtaposed against funk and even heavy metal.
Israeli recorder player Daphna Mor’s virtuosity has been a central component to the ensemble’s sound from its genesis, while dynamic vocalist Tammy Scheffer, born in Belgium and raised in Israel, joined the ensemble several years later; both are compelling performers who bring diverse musical palettes to the session and helped navigate the Hebrew/Aramaic texts. Bassist Sean Conly, another charter member, is one of the busiest jazz bassists in New York and a key collaborator of Monaco’s for her entire professional life. Percussionist Daniel Freedman offers the sensitivity that has made him a sought-after accompanist to artists as diverse as David Byrne, Anat Cohen, and Anjélique Kidjo.
The album immediately announces itself with “Swallow Each Other Alive”, wah-wah guitar, funky acoustic bass and hand percussion matched against airy recorder and Scheffer’s delivery of the Hebrew lyrics and fiery scat singing. Some of the songs are comparatively ethereal, such as complex “Determine Your Actions” and contemplative “Sponge Funnel Sifter Strainer,” on which Mor coaxes cricket-like sounds from her instrument. On the opposite end of the spectrum are metal-infused compositions “Do Not Make Yourself Known to the Authorities” and especially closer “Greed, Sourness, and Hatred”, which features multiple layers of fearless vocals. The sounds of the Middle East and Latin rhumba grooves converge on multifaceted “Tip the Balance” and “The Hope of Humankind Is…”, the latter reaching a climax as the ensemble sings a unison melody over a brilliant bass solo. The distinctive amalgam of sounds is perhaps best exemplified by the upbeat “Midday Wine”, driven by raucous percussion, and “For It Will Be Understood” on which Monaco plays the Glissentar, an 11-string fretless guitar that evokes the sound of the oud.
Between the ensemble’s vitality, Monaco’s prolific composing, and the vastness of material in the Pirkei Avot, we can look forward to more of this innovative and ever-pertinent music in the future.
Vinyl LP/Download available at Bandcamp