Rabbi Eleazar of Worms was a 13th-century scholar whose life was torn apart when two Crusaders broke into his house and killed his wife and three children. After that terrible incident in 1196, he wrote numerous ethical texts counseling cheerfulness, patience and love for humanity, suggesting a greatness of spirit that all but passes understanding. But he also delved deep into the mystical vein of Judaism, authoring countless kabbalistic texts including new systems of gematria (the numerological interpretation of Torah) and a singular work called “The Secrets of Secrets.”
Aaron Novik was reading a history of the Jewish people over seven centuries later, when he came across a brief mention of Eleazar’s “Secrets” text. He thought the title would make a great name for a future project and filed it away in his mind. Talking with the downtown music guru John Zorn three years later, Novik, a bass clarinetist and composer, threw the title out as a possible project for Zorn’s Tzadik label. By this time, Novik had done extensive research online and had thought the project through in startling detail.
“I knew who was going to be on it, that it would be a suite in five movements and that each section would be based on a different Ashkenazi dance rhythm,” Novik said in a telephone interview from his Bay Area studio last week. “[Zorn] said, ‘It sounds awesome, but I can’t do it.’”
But Novik, 37, likes to set impossible goals for himself. He didn’t start playing clarinet until he was in his 20s. Before that, he had played mostly guitar and electric bass in rock groups in Connecticut, where he grew up and went to college. But in his senior year of college, he grew tired of playing rock. Instead he was listening to the forward-thinking, Jewish-steeped music of John Zorn.
“I decided I wanted to play something that fit that [sound] better,” he explained. “I decided I was going to learn the clarinet.”
All he had to do was learn a new instrument, totally unrelated to the ones he was playing, and new styles of music only tangentially connected to the one he had mastered. Oh, and he did this while relocating to the West Coast.
“I was in the Bay Area on a short tour with a band and I really liked it,” he said.
One advantage of moving to Northern California was that he could take classes at Berkeley with jazz saxophonist and creative collaborator Steve Coleman. Even better, Novik could study with Ben Goldberg, one of the first to record for Zorn’s Tzadik label, a clarinetist who combined free-jazz and klezmer chops artfully.
“I had that album [the New Klezmer Trio’s 1995 “Melt Zonk Rewire”], and I wanted to learn to make those sounds he played,” he recalled with sheepish amusement. “He told me we were going to learn how to play [the standard tune] ‘All of Me.’”
Novik was stunned.
“But I trusted him,” he said. “He quoted [great alto saxophonist] Lee Konitz to me, that in order to play ‘outside,’ first you have to learn to play ‘inside.’ So I learned how to play standards and chord changes and all that. [Ben] was really serious.”
Fifteen years later, Novik was putting together a wildly eclectic group of musicians to perform his music inspired by Rabbi Eleazar, and John Zorn — who had taken an interest in the project even though he had told Novik he couldn’t take it on for Tzadik — suggested the younger musician add his old teacher to a group that included postmodern guitar-slinger Fred Frith, rockers Carla Kihlstedt and Matthias Bossi, a string quartet and a four-man horn section. Novik didn’t hesitate.
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“It was one of the last decisions I made, adding Ben,” he said. “I hadn’t played any acoustic clarinet on the album, and I missed that sound in the mix, so I asked him.”
They cut the record. Novik sent a copy to Zorn, who still was reluctant to involve his label.
Then he heard the music. He immediately sent an e-mail to Novik, saying that Tzadik had to release the album.
As one might expect from the fascinating buffet table of musical styles that he has assembled, Novik’s concept for the piece is densely layered; a richly textured tonal carpet frequently pits The Real Vocal String Quartet playing lush Romantic-style legato lines against propulsive metal chugging. Scraps of everything from Afrobeat to klezmer rise to the top of the mix then fall back again.
Ironically, one of the least exposed elements in the recording is Novik himself. He takes only two solos in the entire program.
“I think of myself as a composer first,” he said. “I feel very confident as a composer, but as a clarinetist I feel like I have more work to do. If I didn’t solo at all, the music would still hold up in the same way.”
On the other hand, when Novik plays The Stone on June 19, he will have an entirely different working band, with Ava Mendoza (guitar), Jordan Glenn (drums), Sam Ospovat (percussion), Bill Wolter (bass guitar) and Michael Coleman (keyboards). The only common element between this group and the one on “Secrets of Secrets” is the leader.
“We’ll be playing some music from the record, a suite that combines a couple of the pieces, but the instrumentation is pretty different,” he admitted.
As for the experience of delving into Rabbi Eleazar’s writings, Novik says he’d love to explore more Jewish texts in the future.
“This was the first time I felt like I was studying a part of my history,” he said.
Aaron Novik will be performing at The Stone (Avenue C and Second Sreet.) on Tuesday, June 19, at 10 p.m. For more information, go to www.thestonenyc.com. “Secrets of Secrets” by Aaron Novik is available on the Tzadik label. For information about Novik’s numerous other recordings, go to his website, www.aaronnovik.com.