Only in New York

Adventurous NYC big bands are expanding the scope of Jewish music

Frank London

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The first song starts with a bang. A tenor saxophone solo follows. Then a Jewish melody materializes. Later, trumpeter and bandleader Frank London makes his horn scream and smack during an improvisation, goaded by dissonant harmonic fragments from guitarist Brandon Seabrook. What really stands out, though, is the size of the ensemble.

At the Stone in New York’s East Village in June, London’s horn-heavy Shekhina Big Band was 17 pieces strong, steamrolling through klezmer-jazz originals from throughout the leader’s career. The music was massive but not completely unique: Shekhina is one of several interconnected Jewish big bands currently roaming the New York scene. Taking inspiration from sources as diverse as Sun Ra and Fela Kuti, each group has its own take on Jewish music, but all serve a higher purpose.

The story begins at temple. In the fall of 2009, tenor and soprano saxophonist Greg Wall, of the avant-klezmer ensemble Hasidic New Wave, was brought in as rabbi at the Sixth Street Community Synagogue in the East Village. (Wall left Sixth Street in 2012.) Early the following year, “Jazz Rabbi” Wall started heading up a big band at the shul with his Hasidic New Wave co-leader and fellow Jewish music adventurer London. Fifteen pieces big, and featuring contributors like saxophonist Paul Shapiro and guitarist Eyal Maoz, the Ayn Sof Arkestra and Bigger Band-“ayn sof” is Hebrew for “without end”-exclusively performs originals by its band members. Over the phone, Wall explains that Ayn Sof is a “safe place” for its congregants to bring in Jewish-inspired compositions: “What other big band could have the piece called ‘Ribono Shel Olam’-you know, ‘The Master of the World,’ basically-offered as a prayer?,” he wonders. “So that’s kinda cool that in Ayn Sof you can do that.”

The group takes its cues from more than just Judaism. The Sun Ra Arkestra-yes, that’s where Ayn Sof got that part of its name-has been an influence, and Wall remembers seeing the ensemble segue from Fletcher Henderson pieces into Ra compositions, usually making it unclear where one song ended and the other began. “That’s very exciting to me as a musician, as an improviser,” he explains. “Just having the fluidity of the music, because it’s a living organism and you can go backwards and you can go forwards.”

On Christmas Eve 2011, guitarist Jon Madof’s longstanding trio, Rashanim, performed at Sixth Street with Wall, London and additional six-stringer Yoshie Fruchter joining in. They debuted a new set of arrangements by Madof, of the songs of Shlomo Carlebach, a famed rabbi and Jewish songwriter, in the style of Nigerian saxophonist Fela Kuti’s relentlessly rhythmic Afrobeat. From there, Zion80-one of Fela’s groups was called Egypt 80-evolved into a roaring 13-piece beast including four saxophones and three guitars and released its powerful debut album for John Zorn’s Tzadik label in April. Though not a jazz big band in terms of instrumentation, as London points out to me, Zion80 is nonetheless huge: Horns peck and blast, the organ bolsters, and the bass never lets up. But Zion80 does not play Afrobeat in the strictest sense of the genre. For one thing, it goes to rock-leaning places Fela never explored. But maybe it’s not that much of a stretch. Madof sees much of what he enjoys about rock music in Fela’s sounds. “Some of the things that [Fela] plays, if you took the horns out and kicked on a distortion pedal, it’s like riff-rock,” he says at a Starbucks near his home in White Plains, N.Y. “You know? And I never really made that connection. And it’s weird, ’cause you think, maybe on some level, ‘Oh, oh, Fela’s a lot deeper than riff-rock.’ But I’m talking about what I love about Zeppelin or Black Sabbath or a band like Mastodon or something like that. I love that stuff, and Fela has a taste of that.”

Madof has connected Shlomo Carlebach and Fela musically, but he also sees them as corresponding through the ways they lived their lives. Both men thought globally, says Madof, but neither artist ever lost sight of where they came from. “It does seem to be a prevalent idea now, in American culture at least a lot of the times, that being particular and being universalistic are opposites,” says Madof. “Like, that’s the idea. And I completely disagree with that. You know, I think the way to approach the world is by having roots. If you cut the roots off, you’re in trouble, and if you cut the branches off, you’re in trouble.”

Back at the Stone, during a three-month stretch of Mondays earlier this year, London’s mighty Shekhina Big Band came to life. Where Ayn Sof is a vehicle for its members’ original pieces and Zion80 gives the music of one Jewish composer an Afrobeat twist, Shekhina takes London’s back catalog of klezmer-jazz compositions-tunes from Hasidic New Wave, the Klezmatics and Klezmer Brass All-Stars, among other endeavors-and hands it over to its members for jazz-centered big-band arrangements. London plans to guest with other big bands and take these new arrangements along. But those types of affairs “will always be a little frustrating,” he admits. The trumpeter has stocked Shekhina with players practiced in jazz, Jewish wedding music and Latin styles. But it’s difficult to find musicians outside of New York who have worked in all three worlds, he says.

As you’d expect, the Shekhina Big Band, Zion80 and the Ayn Sof Arkestra and Bigger Band share some personnel. In addition to Wall and London, who play in all three bands, Zach Mayer, for instance, contributes bari sax to each group. Mayer sees a demand out there for more of what he and his tribesmen have been cooking up. “I think people want to have even more of these Jewish big bands,” says Mayer. “And I think audiences like them. And it crosses a lot of barriers. So you don’t have to be Jewish to like these bands. And I think the more people realize that these bands exist, the happier everyone will be.”