On a song and a prayer

"Taking an improvisation spot in music, when you don’t really know where it will lead you, demands faith. Of course, it’s the same with religion"

Shlomi Shaban (photo credit: LIOR ROTSTEIN)
Shlomi Shaban
(photo credit: LIOR ROTSTEIN)
The reciting and chanting of Jewish liturgical poems – or piyutim – was, for many years, a sort of cloistered ritual that took place mainly within the synagogue walls. Prayers and poems in song form have been chanted for over a millennium, with possibly the best-known work from the genre being “Adon Olam,” probably from sometime in the Middle Ages.
In recent years, the piyut has been thrust into the wider cultural limelight through such innovative vehicles as the Piyut Festival, which has been taking place annually at Beit Avi Chai in Jerusalem for the last 10 years. Tel Aviv also got in on the act seven years ago, with its own Zman Piyut – Piyut Time – festival, the latest edition of which will be held at the Tel Aviv Museum from March 14 to 21.
The festival offers an intriguing lineup of shows that plow expansive musical and cultural tracts, taking in sounds, rhythms and textures that interface with the base genre.
One of the more surprising cross-genre marriages in the program is the Jazz Piyut show, which kick-starts the weeklong festival in the museum’s Asia Hall on March 14. The concert was devised by Daniel Zamir, who appears to be the perfect artist for the job, and he has assembled an impressive bunch of sidemen and guests for the occasion.
The substratum for the show will be provided by a sextet that includes several seasoned campaigners, such as drummer Aviv Cohen and bassist Gilad Abro. There will also be guest appearances by two of the biggest names in the local rock-pop sector, pianist and singer-songwriters Shlomi Shaban and Rami Kleinstein, with fellow ivory tickler and vocalist Yonatan Razel, who is one of the leading exponents of contemporary Jewish musical fare.
Jerusalemite saxophonist Zamir, 34, has been plying his craft in the upper echelons of the jazz world for some time now. He started on the first rung of his artistic ladder as a teenager, when he attended the Thelma Yellin High School of the Arts in Givatayim. He began to get into jazz and subsequently relocated to New York to study the art form at the New School, and started develop an interest in Jewish, hassidic and Eastern European music, as well as West Indian rhythms.
While in the Big Apple, he hooked up with John Zorn, the iconic Jewish saxophonist and owner of innovative record label Tzadik, which specializes in avant-garde and experimental music, with particular emphasis on sounds that filter through Jewish culture.
Over the years, Zamir has put out over a dozen albums as leader, including three with Tzadik Records, and has maintained a steady path through the rich musical and spiritually uplifting pickings offered by a marriage between his first artistic love and sounds that feed off Jewish roots. That brings the reedman neatly to his Tuesday date with the Tel Aviv Museum audience.
“Jazz and piyut are two worlds with which I connect strongly,” he says. “I come from jazz – everyone knows that – and I have bonded firmly with piyut in the last few years.”
Zamir clearly knows his way around a jazz chart, and how to put his saxophone where his piyut is, but has not previously tried his hand at combining the two.
“I have never before taken jazz into piyut, and piyut into jazz,” he notes.
If you are going to fuse two seemingly disparate art forms, it can help to be intimately knowledgeable about both.
Zamir’s past profferings of piyut-based material have tended to incorporate a generous helping of passages of improvisation, which is central to the art of jazz.
“These are two genres that live together quite comfortably,” he muses, before taking the conversation in a familiar direction.
While in New York, Zamir, who comes from a secular background, not only got into Jewish music, but he also became religious. That may be a contributory factor in the way he goes about his live music-making business. The saxman is a highly animated performer and cuts a striking figure on stage, often looking as if he just wandered in off the nearest Mea She’arim street.
For Zamir, the principal common denominator between the two styles is of a spiritual nature.
“Piyut is the song of man with God, and jazz, when you stand out there alone, and you create a melody, on the spot, it is also a situation in which you are on your own with Him. It’s a matter of ‘there is what there is.’” If an attempt at producing a piece of artwork does not take whatever technical skills the creator may have acquired along the way through a soulful inner place, it is not going stand much chance of moving anyone. Zamir gets that, and says he digs deep in his playing, hence the jazz-piyut amalgam.
“I feel that you have to connect with something genuine inside you in order to produce something genuine in your improvisation. It has to be something from deep inside you. It’s the same with prayers. You dig inside you, to reach a place of truth, so that makes it very similar [to jazz].”
It is, says Zamir, a matter of taking a leap of faith, almost literally.
“Taking an improvisation spot in music, when you don’t really know where it will lead you, demands faith. Of course, it’s the same with religion.”
PIANIST AND singer Shlomi Shaban on the other hand, is not an observant Jew, as such, but it seems he has been enamored with liturgical material for quite some time.
“Around seven or eight years ago I was introduced to the world of piyut, through an NPO called Yedidi, Hashachachta (Have You Forgotten, My Friend?),” he notes. The association takes its name from a piyut written by late 11th and early 12th century Spanish physician, poet and philosopher Rabbi Yehuda Halevi.
“I met [paytan – piyut singer] Rabbi David Menachem, who is a charming man and also a wonderful singer and musician,” Shaban continues. “He was the first person who introduced me to a number of piyutim, some of which I’d heard here and there, but I’d never tried to play or sing them.”
The seasoned classical-trained singer- songwriter may have been drawn to the genre, but it was not all easy going.
“In rhythmical terms it was challenging for me. Some of the rhythms and the meter of the songs were not familiar to me, not as a classical musician or as a singer who sings songs that are influenced by western culture.”
Shaban’s contribution to the show will include an intriguing Hebrew version of Leonard Cohen’s “Love Lover Lover,” refashioned in Hebrew as “Ana Ana Ana” (meaning ‘please please please’). Shaban will also dig into his own work, and will perform, together with Zamir and the band, a number called “Mahar Be’ezrat Hashem” (Tomorrow God Willing) – which Shaban notes is one of the few songs he has ever written that mentions God.
Shaban says he is very excited about the opportunity to step outside his musical comfort zone.
“One of the things I enjoy the most in this project is the fusion of piyutim, which have a repetitive element that can lead the listener and the performer to a sort of trance – that is something that I don’t generally engage in – and then adding the world of improvisation and solos. This is a show with many high spots, at least for us, and a lot of freedom. We will play the songs in a very open way, and that is a very special and different experience for me.”