Cultural Appreciation  

For genre-smashing enthusiast, Yoshie Fruchter, everything starts with Jewish songs and prayer

Multi-instrumentalist Yoshie Fruchter seems to be everywhere. He’s involved in myriad projects and pops up on videos and recordings with artists as different as Samuel Torjman Thomas’ Mediterranean fusion group, Asefa, Jon Madof’s Zion80, Joey Weisenberg’s Hadar Ensemble, and as a long-standing member of Eitan Katz’s band. He plays guitar and oud, is also comfortable singing and playing bass, and isn’t limited—or intimidated—by genre. 

Fruchter also has an impressive and diverse discography as a leader. His punk-meets-klezmer quartet, Pitom, recorded two albums for John Zorn’s Tzadik Records, and his recent recordings with Sandcatchers pairs oud and lap steel guitar in an eccentric, yet mellow, Jewish embrace of atmospheric Americana. Along the way, he’s also synthesized cantorial melodies and progressive rock, and reimagined Oliver Messiaen’s, “Quartet for the End of Time,” for electric guitar and violin. 

But despite those varied and disparate interests, Fruchter’s musical core starts with the songs and prayers he grew up singing at home and in synagogue. Jewish music, for him, isn’t an academic pursuit or a pathway to rediscover his identity, it’s ground zero, and intrinsic to his journey. 

“The idea of there being these set times growing up, where there was always singing and songs being sung, everything I do sprouts out of that,” Fruchter says in our interview below. “As Jews, we’re lucky, we have a strong musical heritage, and we are lucky to be able to access that in anything we’re doing. I was also lucky enough to have parents who fostered that.” 

I spoke with Fruchter via Zoom from his home in Brooklyn. We discussed his organic relationship with Jewish music, moving to New York City and getting involved with Zorn and the Radical Jewish Culture scene, the origins of his group, Sandcatchers, and the inspiration he draws from his years-long association with the Hadar Ensemble. 

What’s your background and how did you get into music?

I started playing music as a kid. My father is a musician, and he had been in these early NCSY bands. He was a folkie—really into Peter, Paul, and Mary and things like that—but my Zaidy was a rabbi and a chazon (cantor), so we had this combination of Jewish music and song in our house all the time. My father was also in these bands called Ruach and Ruach Revival, which were early iterations of what you would now could call simcha bands, and eventually morphed into Neshoma Orchestra, and things like that. It was a time when Israeli disco, Hasidic music, and Shlomo Carlebach were fuzing. 

Were people like Yosi and Avi Piamenta doing that, too?

The Piamentas came a little after, and took things to the next level, but these guys, like my dad, were listening to bands like the Byrds, and wanted to do the Jewish version of that. My dad plays guitar and sings. When he married my mom, they moved to Silver Spring—where she was from—and he started playing with a band there, which he still does. The band is the Kol Chayim Orchestra, and it’s like a wedding band. My first real gigs were with his band. 

That was probably a great learning experience. 

It taught me how to be a professional—I’ve done stinky club gigs, too—but I learned how to show up on time, and how to learn the tunes. It was cool to be able to do that with my dad, and to have that bonding. As far as the music goes, for me, one of the most important things is that my Jewish, and overall music history, comes from the idea of Jewish song and prayer. The idea of there being these set times growing up, where there was always singing and songs being sung. Everything I do sprouts out of that, even all the weird music that I play. As Jews, we’re lucky, we have a strong musical heritage, and we are lucky to be able to access that in anything we’re doing. I was also lucky enough to have parents who fostered that. 

Is your Jewish heritage a springboard for whatever style of music you’re playing? 

That’s the way I look at it. For example, with Sandcatchers, I don’t think of that project specifically as a Jewish project. But there are echos of Jewish music in a lot of my writing. There’s a place that I go that leads me back there when I am writing and performing. 

You’re saying that Jewish sources are the organic tools you use to express yourself. You’re not culturally appropriating something else, it’s where you’re coming from.

I think that’s right on. It gives you a springboard to do whatever it is you’re going to do, but do it in a way that feels authentic. It never feels like I am grasping at straws to try and make something fit. I never like doing that. I think I’ve always had trouble doing cover songs because of that—although I am coming out of that and experimenting with different things—but I think it gives you a way to be authentic. I was just talking about this with the person I study oud with, an incredible musician named Ara Dinkjian—he’s an Armenian American and one of the most beautiful musicians—and we were talking about the way that in Middle Eastern and Turkish music, there are these notes that are in between the black and the white keys, microtonal notes. Those compare very well to the blue note. They are these notes that you can’t pinpoint. Everybody plays them differently depending on where they’re from, who their teacher was, and who their family is. Technically, there is a way to do it, but every musician has a different way to do it. It is about a feeling that you put into it, and every culture has its blue note.  

Were you incorporating those Jewish influences into your music while you were in college? 

I think it was always there, but it was a process to figure out what that meant and how to channel it. When I was in school, my head was down and I was just learning. But that was also when my band, Juez, started. “Juez” is “Jews” spelled in a ridiculous way. We were basically looking towards John Zorn’s Masada and bands like Hasidic New Wave as our beacons to how to do what we were trying to do.

Were you gigging around DC?

We would gig in DC, and eventually started to come up to New York. We got to play at Tonic a couple of times before it closed, and also the Knitting Factory. There also used to be this place called Makor. We played there right around when Matisyahu was getting started. He was hopping around to different gigs and jumping on as an opener, or in between sets. We played and he was there. The person with him asked if we could put him on in between sets. He went on—I think I went outside, I don’t even think I watched [laughs]—but then six weeks later he was on late night TV and blowing up.

What kind of music was Juez playing? 

When it started, we called it breakbeat klezmer jazz, and it became none of those things. I played bass, and the lineup was bass, sax, trumpet, drums, and then eventually guitar. There were some punk elements, and also some groove jazz influences. The trumpet player wrote a lot of the tunes, and he wrote a lot of really interesting tunes. He was a big fan of the Pixies, so it was like Pixies-meets-traditional-klezmer-music.

After you moved to New York, how did you get into the Zorn/Tzadik orbit? 

I was a fan of it through college, and there were a couple of Tzadik bands that I was really into, like Jon Madof’s band, Rashanim, and Daniel Zamir’s band, Satlah, both of which Shanir Blumenkranz played in. I connected with Shanir in college—Juez did a show with Satlah—so I knew him a little bit. At some point I contacted Jon as well. I was obsessed with his first Rashanim record when it came out, it blew me away. When I moved to New York, I reached out to both of them. The first thing I did—and I can’t remember where I got this advice from—but somebody told me once that when you want to start a project, book the gig first, and then figure out the band. I had some music that I had written, but I didn’t have a band. When I got to New York, the first thing I did was book a gig at Tonic for the following fall. Then I needed a band. I wanted Satlah’s rhythm section, which was Shanir and the drummer, Kevin Zubek. I called Shanir, but I couldn’t get in touch with Kevin at first. I had Matthias Künzli from Rashanim come play, and then a cellist named Chris Hoffman. We rehearsed, did a few things I had written, and played that gig, which was the first gig that we did. Eventually, we figured out that cello wasn’t the right thing. I had met Jeremy Brown, Pitom’s violinist, on a wedding gig. I had started doing the Jewish wedding circuit when I moved to New York.

Shanir helped me through the process of getting the recording together and getting it to Zorn. We did a live recording in a studio. We didn’t spend a lot of time, but made sure it was solid. I made a CDR of it. I didn’t make a fancy cover. I just wrote the name of the band, who was on it, and my phone number. I went to the Stone, and I went to one of the improv nights. I introduced myself—or maybe Shanir introduced me—but I gave Zorn the CD and I think he called me the next day. He said, “I love your record and here’s the deal.” We talked about some other music he was working on at that time, and that was that. I remember either Jon or Shanir telling me that Zorn listens to everything he gets, which made me respect him a lot—among other things—but I really respected the idea that he would give time to any music that comes his way and respond to it. 

He probably got so much stuff.

Exactly, especially at that time. I can’t imagine how many CDs he was getting, which is probably why he called me the next day. He probably listened to it, and if it caught his ear he made the call. I felt really lucky to get the call, and then we continued from there.

Was that project Pitom? 

Yes, and that’s my first real album.

Pitom is punk meets klezmer?

I’ve always had trouble trying to figure out how to describe things. The early descriptions were Zorn, Zappa, and Ziggy Stardust, which is not entirely accurate. But the Zappa thing plays into a lot. I also had a real prog period. It’s weird, because the way I approach music is not indicative of prog rock—that’s not entirely accurate—but when I think of soulful music, my first thought is not prog. But there something about it, which I think was the combination of the weirdness, the heaviness, and the melodic-ness.

Did you do a lot of improvisation, too? 

Sure, at least with that stuff. Improvisation was a big part of it, and the ability to just make noise was a big part of finding my voice. Learning how to make noise and not worry about what the notes are. You can worry about the notes later, but you have to start with hitting all the pedals first [laughs].

What’s the story behind your version of Olivier Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time,” are you playing the score or are you improvising as well? 

No, it is all written. That was really hard to do. I got the score, and it is written for piano and violin. It started as a project for me to figure out if I could play those piano chords on guitar. The first few are doable, but as you get into the piece the chords become more spread out. If you have 10 fingers on a piano you can do it, but on a guitar—I had to start skipping a couple of notes, and my fingers were doing crazy things. It was a fun challenge. The violinist is Jeremy from Pitom. It was hard to play for him, too. The violin part, because it is so slow, you have to keep these really high notes going at 70 beats per minutes, or something very slow.

Your Sandcatchers project, is that a current project or was it a one-off?

It makes me sad, because we were about to go into the studio in May to do our next record. We’ve been touring all this new stuff, and we were all set to go. We had to put it on hold. We’re figuring out how we’re going to do it, but I don’t know.

Is the cellist, Erik Friedlander, in the band, or was he a guest for the album? 

He was a guest for the album. I am definitely having some guests for the new album, although I am not sure if we’re going to have him again, but it certainly wouldn’t be for not being happy [laughs]. It was a dream of mine to play with him. Out of all the musicians in the Tzadik atmosphere, I think he’s my favorite. With Zion 80, we did a few of these Masada marathons—where there are 10 Masada projects on the same concert, and every group plays three songs or something—it’s like Zion 80, Secret Chiefs 3, Electric Masada, these big bombastic groups, and then Erik Friedlander playing solo, and that always gets the biggest applause. It’s incredible. He does many cool things, but one thing that initially attracted me is his use of pizzicato. His improvisations are like a combination between a guitar player and an upright bass player, but on cello. He plays these very melodic pizzicato lines, and it’s a very unique sound. 

Is Sandcatchers also an outgrowth of your Jewish music, but in this case, via Americana? 

The music that I wrote for that project comes from a few different places, and in the sense, that starts with the instrumentation. I am playing oud, which has its own set of things that go along with it, its limitations its capabilities. Myk Freedman, the lap steel player, has that instrument’s history and capabilities as well. The music starts with how those textures work together, and after that, you start getting into the traditions that go along with those instruments. It’s less about directly pulling material from those traditions, and more about using the sounds that I hear in it. In other words, the timbres of those instruments evoke certain things, and that automatically puts you in a certain place. You use the tools that each instrument has, and that brings you to a new place. For me, the Jewish music piece is always a part of that. If you listen to those tunes, a lot of times we are playing some very major key-sounding on-the-prairie song, and then it goes to something that’s more klezmer, hasidic, or something like that. That’s where I come from musically, and what comes out. The other piece of that band, which I feel is really special, is it started at a restaurant. I started playing at this restaurant across the street from my house, right when I started getting into oud seriously, which is this great soul food restaurant called Cheryl’s in Prospect Heights, right off Grand Army Plaza, right by the library. I was playing there solo.

Just for tips?

Yeah. Then I started calling friends of mine who lived in the neighborhood and who I liked playing with. At first, it was just the bass player, and then we added the drummer, who lived around the corner. Then I thought, “What will sound good with this?” And I thought of Myk. We had collaborated on other things, and he’s a really unique player. He’s not a lap steel player who’s going to play a lot of country gigs—not that he couldn’t, but that’s not his thing—he’s into weird stuff, and avant-garde stuff. It was a good match in that way too, because he both had these instruments that had unique traditions, but we were approaching them in ways that were very different from where they came from.

Was the restaurant happy with what you were doing?

They welcomed it. We started doing it every Wednesday night, and gradually they started having music on other nights of the week, too. Cheryl is great, and she’s a music fan. She will sometimes sing a tune with us. Sing like standards, like “Autumn Leaves,” and songs like that. We can all play those tunes, but it sounds quirky on our instruments. And all of that goes into making that band what it is.

You also do a lot of work with the Rising Song Institute. What is that? 

They’re based in Philly, and the umbrella organization is Hadar [Hadar’s headquarters are in New York]. Joey Weisenberg is the person who started that part of the organization, and this movement of a community of Jewish music and singing. When it started, he was recording singers. He got together a bunch of singers and recorded it as if he was recording davening. I think the first record was only singers, and then we did a bunch of records after that with as an ensemble. The Rising Song Institute is a “cohort”—I think that’s the non-profit term for it—it’s a school, or a place for people to prepare themselves in different ways to be leaders and teachers in Jewish music. 

Are you in the house band? 

The Rising Song Institute specifically is a fairly new thing, that’s the school part of it. The Hadar Ensemble is this band that he started a few years ago. That’s been around for a while and making albums. For a while, we were doing an album every year. There are also other elements of it, and retreats that they do.

It seems that music is a big part of their spiritual experience.

That’s where it all comes from. It’s the idea that music is a huge part of prayer. Part of it is also learning about the history of where these songs come from—and where our liturgy comes from—and empowering people to write new music. Out of this is coming a whole new set of music, a new set of tunes that can be used for various prayers. Not that there’s anything wrong with the old, established songs, but this is empowering people to create new music.

Does it have a specific style or focus—or rules about using certain scales or modes—what is the basic musical philosophy? 

Overall, it’s about finding ways to connect. Musically, there is a lot of open ended-ness to it, and there are a lot of places people have gone with that. But the baseline is that it can be sung without instruments, and is assessable to other people to learn, and be involved with, quickly—because the goal of it is to be something that enables involvement. It is less about performance as it is about engagement and sharing.

How did you hook up with them?

I’ve known Joey from pretty early on, from when I moved to New York, through other friends. At the time, he was guitarist and mandolin player playing around town. It was probably around 2008 or 2009 when he started the Hadar Ensemble. For a while, it was a really cool situation where we would get together every week, and play in a shul in Cobble Hill called the Kane Street Synagogue. At the end of each year, we’d make a recording in the synagogue. I think that some of those recordings are some of the best recordings I’ve been a part of, because they’re so real. Everyone is so there.

And it is music you’ve been rehearsing the whole year.

Exactly. It’s not complicated music, but it’s music that requires spiritual energy to make and to make good. It’s been amazing working with all those people. Myk from Sandcatchers, that group is one of the places where we first played together. There are some killer musicians in that band. That’s great, too, when you have these incredibly virtuosic people getting together, and everybody—I am not talking about myself here, I am in awe of everyone else there—but everyone is laying their ego at the door. It’s as if we’re thinking, “We’re going to play this one note for a while and see what happens. We’re going to repeat this one melody.” It’s not about playing fast or complicated, it’s about making this music sound good or feel good.

Photos by Rueben Radding