Rotem Sivan’s Latest Album Is a Monster Achievement

Guitarist Rotem Sivan can barely contain the giddiness in his face when asked to describe the story behind his latest record, My Favorite Monster, available today on his own Aima Records.  

“Well, I was just walking down the street in India,” he told JAZZIZ during a stop in Miami as part of his latest tour. “And then the next thing you know I saw a six-foot purple monster. Now, it’s not every day that you meet a monster, so I had to name the album after him.”

Cue Sivan’s sheepish grin.

Monster or no monster, this much we know for certain: Sivan’s new album was conceived while the guitarist was in India for a three-month residency at the Swarnabhoomi Academy of Music in Chennai. A native of Israel now based in New York, Sivan is a frequent traveler, but there was something about this new environment that opened him up to unfamiliar sounds. He developed interests in everything from native Indian music to hardcore hip-hop, and when he returned from the residency, he decided to funnel all of those influences into an ambitious new project.

The result was My Favorite Monster, a brilliant, hard-charging collection of originals and covers that merges energy from a variety of sources — jazz, blues, psychedelic rock, hip-hop, R&B, EDM and world music of every stripe — into a fiercely compact trio setting. (The guitarist is joined by bassist Chris Gaskell and drummer Nathan Ellman-Bell). There’s a considerable feeling of experimentation and openness throughout these tracks, and Sivan certainly isn’t kidding when he points to his time in India as an eye- and ear-opening experience.

“It was just this particular moment in time that I decided I really wanted to explore other things,” said Sivan. “India was definitely a moment when I was like, OK, I’m going to really explore music seriously. I’m not going to listen to just jazz.”

He recounts one episode of going for a run early in the morning and discovering the music of hip-hop duo Migos. “That album [Culture II] had just dropped, and it was just so authentic,” he said. “On my run, my students would sometimes come with me, and they would want to know what I was listening to, expecting Coltrane or something like that. And when I told them Migos, they were all pretty surprised.”

Hip-hop wasn’t the only discovery Rotem made in India. He also developed a taste for anime, or Japanese-style animated TV shows. On nights when he was particularly homesick, he would turn on an episode of Princess Mononoke to settle his mind. “I liked how clear it was: Good versus Evil, that kind of thing. And I liked the clarity and intensity of the animation, too. But anime also has a lot of depth, and it’s interesting to see how different animators do very different things. It was just a universe I wasn’t used to and wanted to explore.”

Chris Gaskell, Rotem Sivan and Nathan Ellman-Bell (Photo: Courtesy the artist)

Clarity, intensity, depth, exploration — those same terms could be used to describe much of the music on My Favorite Monster. Sivan’s arrangement of “My Favorite Things” is a prime example, fusing musical elements from throughout Sivan’s personal and professional history. The song is a jazz standard, pointing to Sivan’s extensive jazz training at the New School in New York City, but it also exhibits prominent rock influences, including a whirlwind-like solo section, as well as a spoken-word section by New York hip-hop artist Cliche. (Watch a purely instrumental version, sans rapper, below.)

“I asked him to basically sing his favorite things,” said Sivan. “Not ‘girls in white dresses,’ but his own personal favorites. I just wanted him to talk to me, and to the listeners. I tried to bring that contemporary right now thing and connect it to my life and to jazz.”

“Indian Ocean” is another tune that illustrates Sivan’s current headspace — quite literally. The song, featuring an explosive odd-metered groove, ambient acoustic guitar and a Metheny-esque wordless vocal arrangement, has been made into a video featuring head-spinning anime scenes. “Indian Ocean” was the first single to be released from the album, and can be streamed via the player below.

Rotem’s performance in Miami, held at the chic, indoor-outdoor venue Lagniappe, consisted primarily of material from the new album. And while the personnel may have differed from that of the recording (Miami scene fixture Rodolfo Zuniga filled in on drums, and Eva “Shredarella” Lawitts sat in on bass), the strength and spirit of the music were nonetheless palpable. The multi-day Miami stop represented the beginning of Sivan’s My Favorite Monster tour, and the guitarist was curious about how the music would be received.

“There’s a lot of non-jazz stuff there,” he said. “There’s a song that’s kind of poppish. There’s a song with a hip-hop artist. There’s another song with a vocalist, Gracie Terzian, singing on ‘Someone to Watch Over Me.’ It’s jazz, but it’s going to this really rock-ish place.”

The album is also considerably shorter than most contemporary jazz records, both in song length and in overall time. It has more in common with a new release like Kanye West’s Ye (which weighed in at 23 minutes) than a sprawling modern jazz saga like Kamasi Washington’s The Epic. “I was really trying to keep it at the level of my attention span,” said Sivan. “If I listen to this album, how long can I be there. You know? And I wonder about how listeners will react to that.”

Sivan has good reason to ask these questions. With the success of crossover artists like Kamasi Washington and Terrance Martin, who openly embrace modern hip-hop, funk, rock and R&B, jazz is experiencing both a popular resurgence and a fundamental shift in identity. As more young musicians reach across the aisle to other genres — Kneebody playing songs by Cardi B, Vijay Iyer interpreting Michael Jackson, Robert Glasper covering Kendrick Lamar — will jazz continue to open its borders, or build walls around its center? And how will listeners react?

For Sivan, the initial response has been positive, both with audiences and artists. He’s been shown plenty love from the hip-hop community, having been tapped to produce tracks for a number of New York rappers. (“Using MIDI, I can do almost everything on my guitar,” said Sivan. “Bass, keys, synth — it’s crazy.”) And his trio will also be touring with rock band White Denim through September and October, which will broaden his exposure even further. “I’m really excited to see how that audience feels about music,” he said.

When it comes to fusion music, however, the catch is that it only remains a “fusion” for so long. Before you know it, the mixture of sounds begins to concretize, and the ingredients, once highly individuated, begin to melt together. In time, a new genre is born, ready to be “fused” into something else. Still, Sivan is happy with his current sound, and wants to explore it further.

“I’m really, really feeling the sound I’m working with right now,” said Sivan. “There’s a lot of dialogue going on right now, from genre to genre, and people are just making music together that feels good in everybody’s world.”

He points to the internet — where the bulk of music consumption has migrated — as the perfect illustration. “On the internet, you can just talk with a person that you find interesting.  It doesn’t matter if their worldview agrees with yours. It doesn’t matter where they live. It doesn’t matter how old they are. Everything, in that sense, is kind of opening up in a way. And musically the same thing seems to be going on.”

We’ll grant Sivan his six-foot purple monster, as long as he continues to deliver music — and insights — like this.

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