The air in the cramped attic space is oppressively hot in the Cabbagetown house where the 4th Ward Afro Klezmer Orchestra is blaring through a practice set of gypsy-esque tunes from its second album, Abdul the Rabbi. Eight of the group's nine members, including trumpet player and principal songwriter Roger Ruzow, are spread out in a shuffled procession with their backs against the wall. It's the only way they can all squeeze into the room at the same time with their instruments. Jeff Crompton (alto sax, clarinet), Bill Nittler (baritone sax, clarinet), Tony Staffiero (tenor sax), Colin Bragg (electric guitar), Edin Beho (acoustic guitar), Chris Riggenbach (upright bass), and Noah Kess (drums) are locked in a worldly jumble of celebratory sounds. Trombone player Nick Dixon is the only member of the group who couldn't make this Sunday rehearsal.
Still, every note they blast mingles with the translucent haze of humidity lingering near the ceiling. Oscillating fans are locked on high, blowing hot air around, and the occasional page of sheet music takes flight before coming to rest amid the octopus tangle of cables, guitar and horn cases, and tote bags strewn about the floor.
At the far end of the oblong room, a weary black dog named Jack is barking, none too pleased that a stranger with a notebook has snuck in during band practice and settled into the chair behind the soundboard. His bark pierces through the layers of exotic African rhythms and spiraling Russian and Middle Eastern horns blaring off of the walls as the group wails through "Fiddler on the Roof." It's an arrangement that draws from jazz saxophone legend Cannonball Adderley's 1964 version of the same tune, but Ruzow has it set to a subtle hip-hop groove, with a Balkan/ska guitar, and a few extra melodies added.
The song comes crashing to a climactic finale, along with Jack's accusatory barking as the band laughs in bewilderment. "Look dog," Ruzow announces, "everyone in this room wants a solo, but don't think for a minute that you can muscle your way in by barking louder than the rest of us!"
This is the 4th Ward Afro Klezmer Orchestra's first practice since the Abdul the Rabbi CDs were released, somewhat unceremoniously, on August 8. The album — about 75 percent of which was written by Ruzow, with Crompton and Nitler contributing — takes a nomadic stroll through varying musical terrain: Rock, funk, and Afro-pop butted against a rowdy drum rattle and a barreling mass of Eastern European folk. But at the heart of it all, Abdul the Rabbi is an inward journey conceived by Ruzow as a portrait of internal conflict and the plight of adjusting to one's surroundings while coming to terms with one's own identity. It's a heady concept personified by a character Ruzow created and used for the album's namesake.
But Abdul the Rabbi is more than a reflection of Ruzow and his myriad neuroses. The album's abstract narrative and complexities bear the fruits of a musician who's managed to thrive as a musical outsider in a city from which many of his peers fled to find support and even success elsewhere.
Although Ruzow reluctantly admits that there are comparisons between himself and the fictional character he's created, the parallels are undeniable. "Sure, there are connections between the character and myself, but really the idea is about coming to terms with who you are and making some good come of it," he says. "All of the conflicts that our internal apparatus manages on a daily basis have to go somewhere. If they aren't expressed, where do they go? They go inside."
Using a character to embody such an existential dilemma is an age-old literary device. Look no further than The Hero with a Thousand Faces author Joseph Campbell and psychologist Carl Jung's notions on hero myths for an intellectualized take on how Abdul's sage yet rebellious presence teaches us about social taboos and unwritten laws. Ruzow, however, breaks him down in layman's terms. "He's part Spider-Man, part Hercules, and part Woody Allen."
A similar dialectic applies to Ruzow, a versatile musician who defies easy categorization. "I can play jazz, there is jazz in my music, but I'm no more a 'jazz' musician than I am a 'Klezmer' musician or a 'rock' musician," he says, before adding a bit of self-awareness: "One of the biggest obstacles an artist has to face in Atlanta is himself or herself. After you get some kind of a handle on that, hopefully things get a little easier."
In many respects, Abdul the Rabbi brings more than a decade of Ruzow's personal and artistic struggles to a fine point. Throughout the '90s, he established a name for himself playing trumpet with Gold Sparkle Band, one of the more compelling acts to spring from Atlanta's pre-Olympic underground music scene. It was a time that's often hailed as one of the city's most creative eras — the same scene that spawned the likes of Cat Power, Smoke, and the Rock*A*Teens. Even though Gold Sparkle wielded the tools and the talents of a world-class jazz ensemble, the group always embraced bold punk rock and DIY aesthetics over dinnertime tunes. On a given night, GSB would play stages across the city — from a high-end gig at the Omni to the front porch of a house party in Cabbagetown — all on the same night.