Jazz and Deep Jewish Blues

On trumpet, and as a composer and leader, Steven Bernstein is uncategorizable. (See his "Before and After" session with Bill Milkowski in the Oct. 2002 JazzTimes.) But Bernstein and I share roots in centuries-old Jewish soul music-the improvisations of the chazans, the cantors, in synagogues. (Or shuls, as they were called in my neighborhood.)

I have been waiting for Steven Bernstein's Diaspora Blues with the Sam Rivers trio for more than 50 years because it bridges the most personal and yet also cosmic way of answering Duke Ellington's question "What am I here for?" I used to tell Charles Mingus about Jewish blues and how they naturally flow into jazz, and I wish he were here to hear Diaspora Blues.

As a boy and after, I collected cantorial recordings, and among my favorites were Yossele Rosenblatt (whom Otis Spann might have appreciated), and the magisterial Moshe Koussevitzky, who sang in the last Yom Kippur service in Warsaw in 1939 before the Nazis turned the city into a charnel house.

For this set, Bernstein and the Sam Rivers trio hurl themselves into Bernstein's transcriptions of four of Koussevitzky's recorded performances, his own response pieces and two vintage Jewish songs.

I can hear the voice of the chazan in Bernstein's trumpet bringing me back to the first music that made me want to shout out loud in surprise at the emotions it released in me. In my memoir, Boston Boy (Da Capo Press), I saw the chazan again in his black robes and high black skullcap:

"What he sings is partly written, largely improvised. He is a master of melisma-for each sacred syllable, there are three, four, six notes that climb and entwine, throbbing in wait for the next spiraling cluster. The chazan is a tenor, a dramatic tenor, in this continual dialogue with God…The cry. The krechts (a catch in the voice). A sob. A cry summoning centuries of hosts of Jews. The dynamics-a thunderstorm of fierce yearning that reverberates throughout the shul and then, as if the universe had lost a beat, there is a sudden silence, and from deep inside the chazan, a soaring falsetto. The room is swaying; his soul, riding a triumphant vibrato, goes right through the roof."

Such is the penetrating power on Diaspora Blues of Bernstein, Sam Rivers, Doug Mathews and Anthony Cole. When I was about 12, coming across black blues, I heard the krechts, the cry, there too, and again I felt like shouting aloud. And being outside the synagogue, I did.

On National Public Radio's Fresh Air on Sept. 26, Kevin Whitehead said of Bernstein that "he has a focused, vocalized approach to trumpet, which is perfect for this project. Sometimes he also uses a plunger mute on the rare slide trumpet to sound even more voicelike."

Steven Bernstein and Sam Rivers-who hear music far beyond any stylistic boxes-share the passion to search for meaning in music and to find new dimensions of understanding themselves and the world.

In the October/November issue of The Absolute Sound, reviewer Fred Kaplan says of Diaspora Blues: "Listening to their blues-drenched excursions into 'Aveinu Malkenu,' 'N'Kadesh Oz B'Kol' and the Chanukah blessing, I couldn't help but reflect that if Sabbath services were like this, I'd go more often."

By and large, only in the Orthodox synagogues are the services any longer like the impressions on Diaspora Blues. Similarly, the root sound and rhythms in the Holiness churches that shaped the discovery of how liberating music can be for young black musicians years ago are also still resounding.

Diaspora Blues, a project of John Zorn's Tzadik label, is available at record stores, Amazon.com and Tzadik.com. For information on the history of the chazans, there is the newly published first paperback edition of Chosen Voices: The Story of the American Cantorate by Mark Slobin (University of Illinois Press).

The book is part of a long list of titles in the University's "Music in American Life" series. Among others are Mark Tucker's Ellington: The Early Years and Hot Man: The Life of Art Hodes by Hodes and Chadwick Hansen. Long ago, Hodes ran a jazz magazine, The Jazz Record, in which my first piece on the music appeared. So you could blame him, if he were still around, for what followed.

On the High Holidays, my father and I, after the services were over at our Orthodox synagogue, would walk around the neighborhood where there were other shuls. We would check out the chazans in each one-and rate them, annually. But I never could have imagined then that so many years later, I'd be hearing jazz chazans on Diaspora Blues.

At the end of Chosen Voices, Slobin says that what makes the American cantorate unique is "its intertwining, now inextricable, of strands of indigenous American popular forms." In Diaspora Blues, that multiculturalism works the other way too.

Originally published in January/February 2003

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