Jewish Liturgical Music Meets Jazz | WBEZ
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Eight Forty-Eight

Jewish Liturgical Music Meets Jazz

A few years ago, Jazz bassist, composer, and educator David Chevan started writing pieces inspired by Jewish prayers. 


One day, he was listening to a CD by cantor Alberto Mizrahi of Chicago's Anshe Emet Synagogue. 

Mizrahi describes the moment this way.

MIZRAHI: So he said, I have to stop the car. I've got to get this guy. He didn't know what to do with me exactly but he wanted me to perform with him. 

What they decided to do was collaborate around one of the most emotional rituals in the Jewish liturgy.

MIZRAHI: Yizkor service is the memorial service we do as a congregation on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, the Day of Atonement, and at three festivals, Passover, Succot, and  Shavuot. It basically consists of Psalms, and a memorial prayer, and the Kadish. All of those components are in this service.


At first, Mizrahi was worried that his musical ideas wouldn't blend with the composer's. But in fact…

MIZRAHI: When I looked at the music I said to him, 'You know, I like what you've done, but I'd have to improvise it, it doesn't sound authentic to me'. And he says, 'No! that's exactly what I'm looking for! So he provides this amazing Jazz stuff, and he gave me a nice lyrical skeleton of the music, and then I take off.

I asked Mizrahi…where do Jazz and Chazzanut find common ground? 

MIZRAHI: They're both improvisatory arts, you know. You take a mode or you take a scale, and then you…groove! (laughs) You go on it!

In fact, many “Jazz Standards” were written by men who grew up in the synagogue. George and Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Richard Rogers, Lorenz Hart, Oscar Hammerstein, Jerome Kern, and Harold Arlen, who's father was a cantor.

MIZRAHI: He has a lot of cantorial stuff in there. We know that “ta tee tadadatadadam” is really barchu et Adonai ham'vorach so we know there's a relationship between Jewish chant, and Jazz, and, the early influences in your life stay with you whether they're conscious or sub conscious, and I know that I've daydreamt of singing certain blues things, and I do Blues riffs, you know, I hum them.

Yizkor isn't Cantor Mizrahi's first foray into Jazz. In the early 1960s, Jazz pianist Dave Brubeck wrote a piece called “The Gates of Justice”,  about the similarities between the suffering and redemption of Jews and African Americans. Decades later, Brubeck came to Chicago and looked for a cantor to help him perform the piece. 

MIZRAHI: He called me out of the blue, and I said, 'Well, maybe I can do it, I'll check it out,' but of course, who would refuse to sing with Dave Brubeck! (laughs)  


This new effort, Yizkor: Music of Memory, is performed with David Chevan and his ensemble The Afro-Semitic Experience

MIZRAHI: When we first debuted this at the Eldridge St. Museum which used to be a synagogue on the Lower East Side, things happened that nobody expected! It went in ways that Chevan hadn't envisioned, and I know I hadn't either, but I started being more of a cantor in it, because I said ‘Hey, I've got this music, but he's given me the right to improvise.' I'm telling you that I walked away feeling like I just prayed. And the people went away thinking they didn't know what they heard because it was a great Jazz experience with all this wonderful synagogue feel.

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