The same June evening avant-gardist junkies flocked to Roulette to pay tribute to free jazz radical Milford Graves at Vision Fest, Greenpoint metal venue Saint Vitus played host to another kind of improvisation. Symphonic six-string slayer Mick Barr aptly curated a lineup gushing musical violence.
The highlight of Barr’s ear-bleeding festivities was, arguably, the piece he wrote for Archer Spade, the Philadelphia duo of trombonist Dan Blacksberg and guitarist Nick Millevoi. Besides acing Barr’s composition by melding finger-hopping precision with fire-breathing mastery, the twosome’s rapport goes way back; they met in middle school, were roommates, and collaborated on many projects.
But it’s been the arc of musical knowledge that Millevoi—guitarist for Philly/NYC prog-jazz trio Many Arms—has conveyed to the neophyte Blacksberg that has veered him into punk rock and hardcore terrain. “Nick handed me [Michael Azerrad’s indie rock history] Our Band Could Be Your Life and said, ‘Read this,'” Blacksberg recalls. “I read it and was like, ‘This is awesome.’ Then I checked out early Black Flag and the Minutemen.” Blacksberg’s newfound obsession galvanized Electric Simcha, their Hasidic-music-influenced wedding band, into a stomping riot act.
Blacksberg, a trombone virtuoso ensconced in the Jewish music scene, klezmer guru, and student of the late Bob Brookmeyer, Joe Morris, and Joe Maneri, had no punk or rock lineage; the influx of new sounds introduced to him by Millevoi altered his aesthetic. “We would do Electric Simcha shows and my friends would come,” Blacksberg explains. “I’ve never sung or stood up in front of an audience and screamed without a trombone in front of me. So one of my friends said to me, ‘Where did you find your inner Henry Rollins?’ Now I know what that means. Back then, I was like, ‘Henry Rollins? Who’s that?'”
From Electric Simcha and Archer Spade comes Blacksberg and Millevoi’s newest undertaking: the Jewish doom metal of Deveykus. On Pillar Without Mercy (Tzadik), the two are joined by bassist Johnny DeBlase (Millevoi’s Many Arms bandmate), guitarist Yoshie Fruchter (Pitom), and drummer Eli Litwin (formerly of Normal Love). Led by Blacksberg’s monolithic gusts of funereal trombone, the quintet creates something wholly unique: wordless Jewish traditional music fed through a doom metal grinder.
To Blacksberg, Deveykus fits right into Brooklyn’s metal scene. “That’s the world I inhabit already,” he says. “It’s not far from free jazz or just general experimental music. It feels really organic. It doesn’t feel like I have this new thing now and it’s a totally different genre. It’s just an extension, it’s fun, and it’s a great way for me to play Jewish music on my own terms and to get some of my friends to play it so I’m not out by my lonesome.”
The convergence of jazz and metal is raging right now, ubiquitous at Brooklyn venues like JACK. Downtown godhead John Zorn helped guide the metal-jazz beast with Naked City and Painkiller more than two decades ago; that hasn’t been lost on Blacksberg. Zorn’s Tzadik label was monumental in shaping the trombonist’s sound, and the crushing dirge of Pillar Without Mercy found its way onto Tzadik, joining like-minded Jewish heavy metal thrash unit Black Shabbis. “I was as psyched as you possibly can be, man,” says Blacksberg about Tzadik’s release of Pillar Without Mercy via its Radical Jewish Culture series. “I’ve been buying Tzadik records since I became aware of them. It was a dream come true.”
In order for Deveykus to take shape, Millevoi once again pointed Blacksberg into an unknown realm: doom metal. “I had these tunes from different collections I’ve played over the years in different ways, sometimes free jazz or something like that,” says Blacksberg. “I always wanted to do something with them because they were awesome. But I never really hit it.” Blacksberg’s discovery then manifested Deveykus’s inception. “Nick and some other people turned me on to bands like Sunn O))) and Earth,” he explains. “I saw Earth and thought, ‘Wow. This is so great.’ I heard all these things in the music that were kind of Jewishy. I felt like there was a lot of overlap or affinity that this music has for each other.”
Next up for Blacksberg is getting Deveykus to open a few ears and eyes on the Jewish festival circuit. “I would love to get [Deveykus] on the Jewish festivals that I’ve played traditional klezmer on, like, the Krakow Jewish Music Festival and the Ashkenaz Festival in Toronto,” he says. “Many of the bands on these festivals combine Jewish elements with extremely mainstream music in ways that I can’t relate to. I can’t figure out what’s going on, or what’s Jewish about it. We’re one of the few groups who’s finding common ground between Jewish music and the more heavy and experimental sides of rock. Not only does it sound really good but it’s got the potential to bring a whole new audience to these festivals. Basically, I’m trying to bring the rock back.”
Deveykus perform at Littlefield on Thursday, June 27, with Les Rhinocéros and Pitom