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The First Basket

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Album Review

Roberto Juan Rodriguez may be best known as a go-to drummer for a wide array of musicians ranging from Rubén Blades and Marc Ribot to T-Bone Burnettand Paul Simon. While there's no doubt that these gigs are his bread and butter, they are far from the sum total of his passion and gifts — his own records are. The First Basket is his fourth offering for John Zorn's Tzadik imprint. The previous three, including the provocative, big-band set Les Danzon de Moises wove together rhythms from his native Cuba and the Caribbean with melodies from klezmer, Yiddish folk songs, and surf tunes. While his other delightful recordings — 2004's Baila! Gitano Baila! And 2006's Oy Vey! Ole! — showcase somewhat smaller ensembles, they were no less groundbreaking or thrilling. 2009 sees the release of The First Basket, the soundtrack to the documentary film of the same name by David Vyorst about the origins of the Basketball Association of America (BAA) that later became the National Basketball Association (NBA). Rodriguez has composed a brilliant score for a film about the origins of American basketball in the ethnic Jewish neighborhoods of New York, from the ash cans placed on the stoops of brownstones to Madison Square Garden.

Rodriguez has assembled a 15-piece ensemble to perform his music here; it includes some of the brightest lights of the New York vanguard jazz and new Jewish culture scenes: Frank London, Brad Jones, Peter Apfelbaum, Gilad Harell, Uri Sharlin, Oz Noy, Meg Okura, and many more. There are 30 cues in this work that range from under 30 seconds to six-and-a-half minutes. The moaning "Shofar" commences the seamless score; it is named for the Jewish horn used to mark the beginning of religious ceremonies and Rodriguez plays the instrument. It gives way to the ensemble piece "Ellis Island," based on a Hebrew folk melody, played on clarinets, strings, bass, and accordion with trombone entering the mix to underscore the feelings of memory, longing, and melancholy. The mood doesn't remain, however as "Euro Trash Jewish Hoops," begins with funky trip-hop rhythms and loops, heavily reverbed surf-cum-Spanish-style guitar, rolling bass and Harell's clarinet. It is one of the many juxtapositions that add such breadth and depth to the score. The truth of the matter is that while Jewish music is the beating heart of Rodriguez's work, it is simply one part of a mix that claims rhumba, son, rock, ska, dub, salsa, jump jazz and blues, and more as part of the mix: "Red Auerbach" is named for the famous player and coach. It is a roiling blend of snaky blues guitar and B-3 with a funky bassline and shuffling drum kit. New Orleans-style jazz — complete with trombone, trumpet, banjo, and clarinets — makes "Birth of Basketball" a joy to listen to. Then there's scratchy hip-hop at the heart of the Yiddish melody that underscores "The Holyland Dribble," and the stomping, burning klezmer of "Kid's Club Lower East Side," brings the listener back to the narrative movement of both film and score.

If The First Basket is a film about the Jewish contribution of basketball to the North American experience, then Rodriguez's score places it in the context of American music as well: jazz, hip-hop, funk rock, and Latin musics morph with Jewish music into this crazy melting pot of sounds this nation breathes out each day. The First Basket is easily Rodriguez's most ambitious project to date, and his most fully realized; it cannot be recommended enough.

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