When the history of Jews in jazz is discussed, the names that come up are generally the relatively familiar ones like Gershwin and Berlin and their Tin Pan Alley cohort, or the Jews of the swing era like Goodman and Shaw.
Yes, they were progressive for their times. But Jews also have been part of the avant-garde, experimental jazz scene, too, in the model of Davis and Parker, Coltrane and Colman: Fred Katz, Paul Desmond, Ronnie Scott, Red Rodney, Shorty Rogers and John Zorn, among others. This is material that still challenges instead of soothes.
So here’s a look back at the last five years of Jewish jazz, and one of the best albums of that type from each year:
2003—Bob Gluck: Electric Songs
Gluck is a music professor at the University of Albany and a computer music pioneer. The title is mostly about the songs; the instruments themselves are acoustic instruments that have been wired to computers. Although some cantorials are mixed into later tracks, only two instruments predominate. One is the saz, a Middle Eastern stringed instrument with a rounded, lute-like body and long, bass-guitar-like neck. The other instrument is decidedly Jewish: the shofar. The sounds he gets from the first will please Leo Kottke lovers. And the shofar experiments? Yoko Ono must have some Jewish fans.
2004—Paul Brody: Beyond Babylon
Zorn himself started a music label, Tzadik, to record innovative jazz with a Jewish flavor, including Brody’s. Brody is a Berlin-based trumpeter, and Sadawi is his band (they played Chicago’s World Music Festival in 2006), for which he hand-picked the best German and American players on clarinet, bass, drums, and electric guitar, as well as banjo and electronics. Here, Brody pays tribute to his Tzadik labelmates Frank London, David Krakauer, and Naftule’s Dream by deconstructing and reimagining their works. The result is by turns melodic and dissonant, but raucous and playful throughout. According to Zorn, Brody’s music “combines exciting arrangements, catchy tunes, and compelling solos into… a new Jewish jazz for the 21st century.”
2005—Diego Goldsztein: Jewish Standards
Standards, maybe, but hardly standard arrangements. Goldsztein, a pianist, records in Montevideo, Uruguay—so “If I Were a Rich Man” comes out “Si Yo Fuera Rico.” The other tracks range in source from the Siddur to Sabra, from Yiddish to Ladino. The melodies are familiar, but the presentations can be sometimes startling. The insinuating sensuousness of Jobim is a clear influence, but so is the sprightly warmth of Brubeck. This is an excellent selection for chilling out, or for a dinner or cocktail party.
This Israeli quintet combines Eastern and Western instruments. They jam on sax, trombone, flute and bass, but also Middle Eastern percussion and the oud, the precursor to the lute (and guitar, for that matter). Not to mention the music-box-sounding kalimba and even a conch shell. Their debut features originals that are happy, propulsive and clever. People who “don’t like jazz” will find themselves enjoying the surprisingly accomplished playing from this young ensemble (none looks to be over 30). This is a great intro to Jewish music, and to jazz, for fans of Ben Folds, Dave Matthews, and The Wallflowers.
2007—Alex Kontrovich: Deep Minor
One of the founding members of the Klez Dispensers, Russian-born Kontrovich is a clarinet and sax player equally grounded in the avant-garde jazz and klezmer worlds. He is also a Ph.D. candidate in mathematics and a black belt in karate. He brings both the discipline and flexibility suggested by this résumé to his music. One piece captures the bustle of foot traffic during a “Transit Strike.” Another uses the “New Orleans Funeral March” style to mourn that entire city. Still others are based in waltzes or tangos, and then there is the “AfroJewban Suite.” The late, great Pavarotti once defined opera as “yelling with education,” and this CD captures that mix of high intellectualism and fierce emotionality perfectly. The Green Mill crowd should enjoy this disc.
Jews have a long tradition in jazz; Harry Kandel was mixing jazz and klezmer in the late 1910s, and Mickey Katz joined him in the 1920s. With each year bringing new albums full of fresh talent in the 2000s, this glorious legacy promises to continue unabated in the new millennium.
Paul Wieder is public relations manager at the JUF/Federation.