A day of rests, and notes: Shabbatjazz review

By PAUL WIEDER – Special to JUF News and the Chicago Jewish Community Online

“How do you handle the notes so well?” the listener asked the musician.

“It is not in the notes, but in the rests (pauses) between the notes, where the art lies,” he replied. This story is related in the liner notes from Shabbatjazz, the latest release from Jon Simon. It’s an album of music from and about that restful pause at the end of each cacophonous week, our beloved Shabbat.

Ask Simon how he developed the idea of setting Jewish melodies to jazz arrangements, and he tells another story. In his car one winter, Simon kept cranking the radio dial, struggling to escape the Christmas songs. When he finally did, he landed on Maoz Tzur (Rock of Ages), a Chanukah staple. But he still wasn’t happy, though now for a new reason. All the other holiday songs, he realized, had contemporary arrangements. But this version of the Chanukah song sounded extremely dated.

Some, at this point, might have been content to frown or shrug. Instead, Jon Simon was inspired. A budding jazz composer Simon’s first release, images and inspirations, included the score he wrote for the movie Pandora’s Box Simon had received some studio time as a gift from his parents. He entered with the idea of revitalizing Jewish melodies through jazz, and came out with new traditions, a recording that did just that. He followed it with six more Jewish-jazz records, including Zoom Gali Boogie.

Perhaps because of the playful title, its festive lettering, or the splashy suspenders and tie Simon sports on the cover, Zoom Gali Boogie often ends up filed with the kids’ music in the record store. Simon says it wasn’t intended that way, but he’s fine with it; kids seem to enjoy the polyrhythms, and he sometimes wins fans among their parents.

Classically trained, Simon fell into jazz as a teen. Like many musicians, he hedged his bets with a fallback career. Simon’s MBA is from Harvard, and his bachelor’s in industrial engineering from the University of Michigan. Even today, Simon’s Web site admits that he’s a senior executive and consultant to Internet companies around the U.S., and not just a brilliant pianist.

“I’ve had many influences, and try to expose myself to a lot of music,” Simon explains. “Within jazz, I tend to gravitate toward Pat Metheny; I find his music so rich and inventive. On keyboards, I have been drawn to Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea, Oscar Peterson, and Bill Evans. Outside of jazz, I actually listen to a lot of classical.

How does Jewish music fit in? The modal structure of Middle Eastern music is very akin to those used in jazz, he explains, and Gershwin used the harmonic structure of Jewish melodies in many of his compositions. And cantors may have been the first jazz musicians of all, improvising on the melodies of the services, he adds.

There are three basic kinds of jazz music, as far as the average listener is concerned. There’s the Muzak kind suitable for elevators and relaxation tapes. There’s the intellectual kind you’d need a master’s degree to appreciate. And then there’s the accessible kind, exemplified by artists like Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, and Bobby McFerrin. This is this kind of jazz Jon Simon plays.

And it has won him acclaim both wide and high. Simon is coming to Temple Jeremiah in April (see below), but some of his previous gigs have been the U.S. Senate, the Israeli Embassy, and one of Clinton’s Inaugural Galas.

Sure to increase Simon’s standing even further, Shabbatjazz is remarkable for several reasons. It’s only the second time Simon has recorded an entire album with a band, but the arrangements are both sure-footed and free-flowing; there’s breathing space for each note. Simon is able to increase speed without increasing volume, a welcome relief. And the recording quality itself is superb.

Shabbatjazz begins and ends appropriately, bracketed by the snappy Latin Shabbat Shalom and the nine-minute, stream-of-consciousness Adon Olam. In between, we take A Sabbath Walk down Tin Pan Alley, kicking autumn leaves into the breeze. We pray a Hashiveinu that gives sound to the voiceless yearning of a heart pleading for forgiveness. We visit Debbie Friedman in her Mi Sheberach, and learn that her music deserves as much notice as her songwriting.

And what would Shabbat be without guests? Several interesting instruments play alongside and against Simon’s masterful piano. A bright flamenco guitar introduces Etz Chaim. A profound cello opens Yedid Nefesh. A sprightly flute helps close out the recording in Adon Olam. And hand drums, used throughout, nicely bridge Shabbatjazz’s Latin and Middle Eastern elements.

Perhaps the most innovative instrument employed, however, is the human voice. Vocal washes and descants warm several of the pieces. They are also a good alternative the synthesizers, which often inject an unwelcome New-Agey tone into the otherwise solid sound. Violins would have been preferable in these cases; if not available, the synths could have had a warmer, Suzanne Ciani-like tone.

While the other instruments delight, Shabbatjazz orbits around Simon’s stunning keyboard work. In case we forget, he reminds us in the middle of Adon Olam. At the four-minute, 40-second mark, Simon breaks into a piano solo that both astonishes with its dexterity and awes with its spirituality. The interval lasts for just a minute, but when it’s over, you’ll feel yourself starting to breathe again.

All the best elements come together on Yom Ze Mechubad, the collection’s best track. The ancient melodic theme is evident, not hidden as on some tracks. The sweeping vocals, the sparkling piano each of the ideas that make the individual tracks special join in one uplifting work. It is a near-perfect piece of music.
Lots of Jewish music is appropriate for a campfire. Jon Simon’s music whether Hanukkah and all that jazz, From Broadway to Hollywood, or Beatles on Ivory should be enjoyed by a fireplace.