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Latvian Linguists and Lost Photographs
Rob Burger talks with RootsWorld's Michael Stone

There are recordings whose first exhalation transports the listener to an extraordinary parallel universe of the sonically sublime. To wit, Lost Photograph, a droll, fanciful menagerie of found and retro sounds whose fluid, playful soulfulness mark a brilliantly cohesive but unobtrusively conceived effort, commissioned by John Zorn for Tzadik's Radical Jewish Culture Series.

Long Island native and multi-instrumentalist Rob Burger (accordion, piano, toy and prepared pianos, claviola, celeste, Hammond S-6 organ, pump organ, bass harmonica, glockenspiel, Indian banjo, chamberlin, orchestron, marxophone, Casio keyboard, shortwave radio, music boxes) has played with Tin Hat Trio, Don Byron, Bill Frisell, Marc Ribot, Susana Baca and Norah Jones, among others. On Lost Photograph he heads a trio whose fluent rhythm section comprises bassist Greg Cohen (Lou Reed, Tom Waits, John Zorn) and drummer Kenny Wollesen (Frisell, Norah Jones, John Zorn).

What are your earliest musical memories? What role did music play at home as you were growing up?

My earliest memory is playing the first three tunes I ever learned on piano, around age four: "Rock Around the Clock" by Bill Haley and the Comets, "When the Saints Go Marching In" and "This Land is Your Land." Could have been a lot worse. Music predominates in my immediate family, and also on my father's side of the family. My grandfather, uncle and some cousins are teachers and composers, and they have always encouraged me to play and sing, and work on my music. I was often the entertainment at family gatherings.

Tell me something about your musical formation.

I started taking piano lessons at age six, mostly learning the works of the usual suspects — Bach, Beethoven, Brahms — and I hated it! I used to cry before recitals, and refuse to go. My mom would bribe me, and I guess it worked, because I eventually grew out of despising it. My teacher, Jeff Marcus, taught at Julliard, and he got me involved in the Julliard prep program for kids. In middle school and high school I participated in various wind ensembles, playing clarinet, sax, and trumpet, and in jazz ensembles playing piano, and even a vocal ensemble or two.

The jazz program was run by a very hip teacher named Don Palmer. Not only did he introduce me to the music of Duke Ellington and the arrangements of Thad Jones, but he also was really into the more modern sounds of that time, the late 1970s and early 1980s, like Tower of Power and Weather Report. We actually performed tunes from the first Jaco Pastorius album in school big band concerts.

I went to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and had the opportunity to study and play with Yusef Lateef, Archie Shepp and Max Roach. In addition, I studied classical performance with Nigel Coxe, who also taught at the Royal Academy of London.

After graduation, I moved back home to New York, where I spent a lot of time taking in the music that was happening at the Knitting Factory in the late 1980s. About a year later, I moved to Portland, Oregon, with friend and collaborator Mark Orton, one third of the Tin Hat Trio. There I also landed a gig playing accordion in the Bill Frisell Band, with Joey Baron, Kermitt Driscoll, and then Don Byron. Bill and I continued to work together here and there, doing soundtracks for various films and such, including the score he composed for Gary Larson's animated TV special, "Tales From the Far Side." Working with him fresh out of school was an education all in itself.

What brought you to John Zorn, or was it the other way around?

Zorn saw my band Tin Hat Trio perform last year [2002] in downtown Manhattan. He had heard some of the records, but after seeing us live, he got a new take on the music I was writing for the group. He called me up, enthusiastic about my compositions, and was curious to hear it arranged in a different context for his Radical Jewish Culture series. Soon after his proposition, he called me to do a film soundtrack, Filmworks XIII. He composed and arranged for me on accordion and bass harmonica, along with Marc Ribot on guitar, Kenny Wollesen on vibes, Erik Friedlander on cello, and Trevor Dunn on bass. That was my first opportunity to work with Zorn. His ability to conduct and arrange on the fly (somewhat like mixing a recording completely live), and to do this in a matter of one or two takes is really impressive to witness. He really has an ability to draw the most music possible out of an individual in a given moment, as long as you don't take anything he says personally!

Regarding the lineup of Lost Photograph, how do three guys come off sounding like an entire orchestra?

I was initially hesitant to record in a standard jazz trio format. I was looking for a sound that covered a lot more ground than that, something more orchestral that wouldn't dilute the sound. There were subtle treatments, and a minimal number of overdubs for additional color. It was important to me that the recording represent the ensemble's ability to interact live.

As far as the players are concerned, Kenny Wollesen, in addition to being an extremely versatile drummer, happens to be a great vibes player, and he collects various tuneful percussion instruments, vintage electronic beat boxes and so forth. Bassist Greg Cohen is also an incredible arranger and producer. He is really into using extended techniques on his instrument, exploring a variety of sounds with the bass. Both share a philosophical outlook in their approach to their instruments and various styles of music. They know how to be inventive individually and yet, they approach the music to create a unified sound as a band. Of course, they also have played a lot together, mostly in Zorn's original Masada band. Having this rhythm section as an anchor essentially assured me that not much could go wrong in the session.

You're a collector of unusual instruments whose found-sound quality gives Lost Photograph its odd sonic charm. Tell me about your collection, motivation and so forth.

I have been collecting unusual keyboard and stringed instruments for many years. Various archaic keyboards I own include two Chamberlin tape-replay machines (the U.S. prototype of the Mellotron), a Hammond Solovox vacuum-tube synth, an Estey portable pump organ from the 1940s, a Dulcitone, various toy pianos and keyboard glockenspiels. I also have a hybrid zither originally made for children called a Marxophone, a Magnatone lap steel guitar, an Indian banjo, a bass harmonica and other various ethnic collectibles.

These instruments have such a human quality to them. I am drawn to the nature of these acoustic-mechanical instruments because they can evoke certain naïve qualities of the people they were originally intended for. The fact that there are very few obstacles — I mean the modern electronics of digital machines and effect pedals common today — between myself as the player and the instrument, forces one by nature to draw out a very individual approach.

Speaking of untamed collections, one association Lost Photograph brings to mind is the work of Supergenerous, comprising Brazilian multiple percussionist Cyro Baptista and guitar wizard Kevin Breitt. Comments?

Interesting that you make that musical connection. I enjoy their work very much. Those guys are really inventive players, and there is an indirect association since we often travel in similar circles. I have worked a lot with Craig Street, who produced that particular record, in addition to Peruvian singer Susana Baca and Norah Jones, both of whom I've also recorded with.

I have a series of questions playing off the track titles on Lost Photograph. "The Couch Episode" is an ambiguous, suggestive designation. Too much TV, make-out session, psychoanalysis or...? In a funny way, the spirit of Tom Waits seems to hover here.

"The Couch Episode" is a funny story, and yeah, I guess it does have an ambiguous quality to it — I kind of like that. The story goes like this: My girlfriend Mary and I bought this antique couch in downtown Brooklyn for our new apartment last year. We don't own a car and no car service would pick it up for delivery at that time. We were anxious to get it home, so we decided to lay it on its side on a dolly and wheel it home in rush-hour traffic, on the hottest day of the year. An episode it was!

It's funny that you associate the sound with Waits. I am a big fan of Tom's music and have had the opportunity to watch him work in the studio when Tin Hat Trio collaborated with him on our second record, Helium. I am especially inspired by his use of found-sound and "prepared" objects in order to create a musical world that is very much his own — he is a real forward thinker, and a most unique artist.

On "The Couch Episode," your association may be in hearing the rhythmic consistency of the prepared piano throughout this particular song. Often, I apply various metal clips and putty to the piano strings in order to explore the instrument's other percussive sounds — the piano is a percussion instrument, after all. I sometimes prefer to extend an acoustic instrument in this way to explore other sounds rather than play electric instruments in conjunction with various effect pedals. I have experimented a lot more with pedals in the past, but often the electronic sounds, with some exceptions, tend to be instantly dated. I'm drawn to the limitless sound variations and possibilities an acoustic instrument can give the player.

So what goes on "Below Delancey"? To my ear, this has a generous infusion of Pink Panther, but there's more of course.

Well, your ear is pretty good. I have to say that I didn't intend the song to be a direct nod to Mancini, though I would agree that it sort of has that Pink Panther-Breakfast at Tiffany's kind of lilt to it. I am a big fan of various film composers, especially from that 1950s-1960s era, the way they were recorded back then, the use of odd instrumentation and the like. I love the work of Henry Mancini, Elmer Bernstein, Nino Rota, Ennio Morricone and John Barry, in addition to tunesmith arrangers like Burt Bacharach. In fact, when I lived in San Francisco, I played in a Mancini cover band called Oranj Symphonette. The group was comprised of Tom Waits alumni including Ralph Carney on reeds, Joe Gore on guitar, and Matt Brubeck on cello. They all met and played on the soundtrack session for Jim Jarmusch's Night on Earth. It was a real blast when that band was active. We made two recordings for Rykodisc.

Who is the "Linguist from Latvia?" If I have to pick — and that's a tough choice, given the competition — this is one of the album's most evocative pieces.

My grandmother is from Latvia, and she came to New York City around 1930. She was literally kidnapped from a plague-infested hospital by her sister after she was born. Her sister came over to the U.S. first and arranged for my grandmother to come over by herself at age 14. Like her sister she is an incredibly smart woman. My grandmother spoke five languages: Yiddish, Russian, German, English and Hebrew. Most impressive! She played an integral role in my life growing up in New York.

You include two quite distinct traditional pieces, "Dem Monastrishter Rebins Chosidl" and "Aveenu Malcenu." How did you settle upon these?

They are indeed quite different from one another. "Aveenu Malkenu" is a traditional cantorial melody that brings back many memories from my childhood. My grandfather is a retired cantor, and he introduced me to a lot of these ancient pieces when I was growing up. In addition, I wanted the recording to feature a solo accordion piece, capturing the dry sound of somebody simply playing in a small room. This seemed like a good one.

The other traditional piece I picked to round out the record is one of my favorite klezmer tunes. I first heard this piece performed on a recording of Dave Tarras, and he gave it such a festive quality. My interpretation of this one involves playing tack piano with a Marxophone solo. The latter is a zither that sounds somewhat like a cymbalom. There's a slight reference to saloon music or a hint of Americana in this version, as if Hobart Smith were interpreting Jewish music. Go figure!

"Arturo, the Aqua Boy" is surely a character, waltzing away in music-box fashion. Where do he and his quirkiness come from?

"Arturo, the Aqua Boy" is based on a character from Katherine Dunn's Geek Love, a novel about a family of carnival freaks, somewhat like a Fellini movie in ink. This piece is a good example of the band exercising the use of orchestral timbres. Kenny's tubular bells, in conjunction with toy piano and the high arco bass. I felt this was an extremely effective quirky interlude.

"MEM" has a certain Andalusian feel to it, fused with tango, which makes sense in terms of transatlantic cultural history, especially if you factor in the Jewish presence in Argentina.

The Hebrew letter "MEM" happens to correspond with my partner Mary's initials. She had a strong influence on decisions we made, executively as well as musically, throughout the process of making this CD, so I titled this piece for her. It also happens to be the first initial of the cover artist's (Rafael Oses) girlfriend, Maureen, who passed away last year. The found photograph on the album cover was a favorite of hers. MEM to me could have been the title of the record. It's one of the two songs — "Inzihuat" is the other — that really captures the band's ensemble playing in its purest form.

As for the tango allusion, I have listened a lot to the work of Astor Piazzolla, as well as more traditional and earlier styles of tango. For example, Troilo is another favorite. It's possible that these influences are, in subtle ways, occasionally evident in my playing and writing.

"Constantinople" — East meets West — the meeting place for Ottoman Turks, Greeks, Arabs, Sephardic Jews, Gypsies, denizens of the Balkans and folk further afield, on another driving percussive piece.

You are really hitting the nail on the head. I guess I was trying to capture from the rhythm section the kind of "good slop" you hear in various brass bands from Macedonia and Serbia. Since I started playing the accordion — a natural extension of playing piano — I have explored, along with my band mates in Tin Hat Trio, a lot of folk music from South America and Eastern Europe. Even though we now just compose music that flows freely and naturally from ourselves, initially we used these folk forms as a basis to create our initial sound, using similar instrumentation, the accordion, violin and guitar.

More recently, when home in New York, I've been playing a bunch with reed player Chris Speed and drummer Jim Black. Those guys are really into music of the Balkan region, and they have re-sparked my interest in this music.

"The Ringling Kid": dreamer, circus orphan, runaway Pinocchio, schemer, ne'er do well or…?

I love your descriptions. "The Ringling Kid" is sort of a lullaby for my grandfather on my mother's side. My grandfather used to take my brothers and me to the circus when we were kids. He would tip the ushers to see that my brothers and I got escorted to the front of the ring — we often had lousy seats — where we would get to ride on the elephants. He was such a sweet, gentle man, and we will always remember him.

Kurt Weill's "Youkali" is an inspired choice, especially coming as it does in setting up the album closure. A kind of bolero, wherein I hear an emotional element of what Brazilians call saudade, nostalgia, yearning, a cultural longing. Where did you pick it up, and how did it end up in the repertoire?

I played this song on a recording by clarinetist Gary Milliken in San Francisco. I absolutely adore this Kurt Weill song, and thought it would be a great ballad to interpret in the accordion-bass-percussion format. Kenny's percussion track ended up giving this song a very loungy feel, almost with a touch of exotica to it — think Martin Denny, Arthur Lyman, etc. Totally unintentional. This might contribute to the bolero feel you're talking about.

What's "The Storyteller's Story" about?

I see Lost Photograph as a series of short stories, small portraits or miniatures. Though the record has a common thread running through it, intending to take the listener on a little journey, each song in my opinion, takes on a small life of its own. But that said, ultimately the stories are up to the listener to interpret.

One thing to take into account is that in making a so-called "Jewish" record, I was faced with the challenge of producing something geared to a specific series, something I've never been asked to do before. Generally speaking, I am not someone who is interested in digging up an old musical tradition and putting it in a museum. Many people enjoy recreating and performing music in its most traditional forms. This, however, does not interest me, nor does it seem authentic to me. In making this record, it was important, absolutely crucial to maintain a certain level of individuality, something personal, something that was going to push the envelope of what Jewish music is recognized to be today.

Apart from "Linguist from Latvia" and the Weill, the other contender in my book for "most evocative," in a stately, poignant and affectionate way, is the closing track, "The Cantor and His Grandson." An autobiographical element?

Yes, "The Cantor" is somewhat biographical. I already mentioned that my dad's father was a cantor, as well as a composer and professor of music. This seemed like a fitting closing piece. A distant solo piano, treated with white noise, shortwave and music boxes to give the sweetness a bit of a sour edge. The crackles and pops coming from the shortwave radio gives the piece a quaint, antiquated sound. Reminds me of something old, like a 78-rpm record played through a Victrola speaker horn.

One last question. When the lost photograph turns up, what will it reveal?

You'll never find it!


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