SAM REIDER & THE HUMAN HANDS – The Golem And Other Tales (own label) 

The Golem And Other TalesSo what is the link between Django Reinhardt, Planxty, Duke Ellington, Astor Piazzolla, Bernard Herrman and Raymond Scott? Well, apart from having to look the last one up, the answer is this wide-ranging combo. (Scott, btw, is the composer whose work was adapted for use in all those Looney Tunes cartoons of yore, as well as for the Simpsons, Ren and Stimpy, and, even, Bluey. Reider and his compadres, who play, between them, piano, accordion, fiddles, cello, mandolin, bouzouki, electric and acoustic guitars, alto saxophone and stand-up bass, use Reider’s compositions to spark off into a whole panoply of styles and directions, taking neither prisoners nor respecting boundaries. 

The Golem is the well-recognised folk tale of Eastern Europe, and is here presented as a eight part suite, with the remainder of the album being five further tracks, unrelated other than in ambition. Reider has a background in education, as a teacher of composition. Aside from the Human Hands, he has released solo piano music and a Grammy nominated duet album of Venezuelan music, pairing his accordion with the cuatro of Jorge Glem. These, piano and accordion, are his main instruments.  

The set kicks off with ‘Lunatico’, named after the Brooklyn bar that frequently hosts the band. With Andrew Ryan’s acoustic bass leading off a slow looming lope, Roy Williams adds a bar of off-kilter elegiac guitar, ahead of Reider first hitting the keys. The strings and saxophone enter together, and the piece becomes a lilting episode of gypsy jazz,  edging into a Viennese coffee parlour. The piano skitters and Eddie Barbash’s alto is a soothing tone. A mandolin, Dominick Leslie, scrubs rhythm, with the violin and cello of Alex Hargreaves and Duncan Wickel flourishing within any space left. It is a beguiling start that draws you in, before it ends, as it began, with Ryan’s bass. 

‘The Fire Road’ then has the feel of a schottische, as the accordion steps out over strummed accompaniment. Paired fiddles dive into the same melody, as does the saxophone, before cello picks up the lead. A flurry of mandolin shares the load between all present, and it becomes positively joyous. There is even a burst of swift picked bluegrass guitar, the themes irrevocably confused by what sounds like clarinet, but is possibly the sax, as it morphs into McKlezmer variations. Good stuff. 

‘Mourning Dove’, see what he did there, is a slower and more reflective track, suggesting Italianate origin, and, between Reider’s piano and the rest of his ensemble, they conjure up a mood of a decaying grandeur, infused with graceful regret. It is a lovely tune, and one I found myself returning to, time and time again. It too swaps borders, with a Celtic feel emerging as it elongates. Lulled from reverie, ‘Ancient Technology’ then scatters the pigeons with a brooding shimmy of accordion over more sterling scaffold from the bass. The horn/string combo dart about the shop on this one, the rest of the band dipping in and out around them. I am really enjoying Barbash’s play, his pedigree, as a saxophonist of choice with Jon Batiste and Cory Wong, showing through. 

Palate duly cleansed, ‘Fugue for Väsen’ is perhaps more an opportunity for the ensemble to show off their classical chops, if brimful with crossover potential. As it says on the tin, this is undoubtedly a fugue, a frantic one at that, with Reider masterful in his lead, from the piano keyboard. No slouches, the band are well up to the job, possibly belying their more traditional backgrounds: Hargreaves plays also with Billy Strings and Leslie with Molly Tuttle. 

The titular Golem suite is a tone poem across eight movements, with each instrument reflecting a different character in the legend; so the piano narrates, the cello represents the rabbi, the accordion the golem and so on. And if that sounds daunting, too much like hard work, worry not, the music is equally enjoyable as just instrumental play. (Dare I say more so, thus avoiding any struggle to recall the tale?) Irrespective, it starts with an angular piano melody, with slightly discordant strings, so as to portray the rabbi’s prayer, building into an ensemble incantation, over a repeated bass and rhythm line.  

The second movement is more to my taste, a cha cha cha with the sax and strings combining to indicate the presence of a mysterious stranger, that mood accentuated with further Latino tropes. If I’m already a bit lost in the storyline, who cares, it is such an uplifting segment, with me failing to specifically spot the joins between and into the third movement, they each sticking firmly in an in between the wars Argentina. Williams in on Djangoesque fire. 

Section four brings about a bridge between that euphoria and the more experimental first movement; this is the golem awakening. Thankfully, part five is another romping celebration, if threatening to spill over and out of control, the mood desired. Fiddle and guitar spar, as it gets all brought to a boil. Six is the golem falling in love, the tune a delicate and yearning melody, a veritable tea dance. I guess I am more familiar with Frankenstein, but the debt Mary Shelley displayed to this ancient legend is clearly so much stronger than I had realised, with the basic plot around ideas of creating life, doing so, losing control of the construct, and then the monster’s ultimate destruction, being so similar. 

Part seven has the rabbi chasing his creation and is where Looney Tunes link with Hot Club de Paris, in a harum scarum round the houses. An animated feature to accompany even this section alone would be a cracker. The outcome inevitable, as the golem is returned to clay, rather than having to troll out the unending retreads and reruns Shelley’s creation was subject to, and the final part has this covered in a short and melancholy epilogue.  

The Golem And Other Tales is a good record. To be fair, I feel the endeavour to have a continuing and connected project within it is, may be a little too ambitious, as the compositions can stand up, most of them, without that vanity, a couple of them seeming more just to fit the theme, rather than to the overarching mood of the whole album. But that is a small gripe in the bigger picture, and Reider is to be congratulated for his fusion of styles into such a cohesive whole. 

Seuras Og 

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