By any standards, the Afro-Semitic Experience is a unique collection of musicians. Co-founded in 1997 by African-American keyboardist-composer Warren Byrd and Jewish-American bassist-composer David Chevan, the group bridges the worlds of jazz, R&B, gospel and other African-rooted genres with Jewish-identified music such as klezmer and nigunim (religious Jewish vocal song). Along the way common ground is discovered and a joyous, soulful aggregate is created.
For Further Definitions of the Days of Awe, the Afro-Semitic Experience, whose members come from within several different ethnic and religious affiliations, collaborated with cantors at concerts in three cities-New York, New Haven and Greenfield, Mass.-and recorded the results. This is highly spiritual music, often solemn, but never is it less than enlivening. With Cantor Jack Mendelson (subject of the documentary film A Cantor’s Tale) or his son Daniel featured on the majority of tracks, Further Definitions of the Days of Awe aims to wed the spiritualism of chazzanut (cantorial music) with modern Western forms, and largely succeeds.
Where jazz comes into the picture is in the open-endedness and creative approach of the arrangements. On “Mitzratzeh B’Rachamim,” a bass-driven melody frames an expansive orchestration worthy of Gil Evans, while “Sh’ma Koleinu” (featuring Cantor Erik Contzius and choir) seamlessly matches the booming vocal to slightly off-center piano. It ultimately kicks into a Latin/African percussion-fueled jam before closing down with an extended bass solo from Chevan. “Avinu Malkeinu,” the program closer, is not all that far away from what Duke Ellington brought forth in his Sacred Concerts.
Further Definitions of the Days of Awe isn’t first and foremost a jazz recording-not by accepted contemporary standards-but its integration of jazz and other styles with Jewish liturgical song is an admirable achievement.