'Rabbi' of Rumba

By Andrew Muchin

Published August 03, 2007, issue of August 03, 2007.
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Before the Hip Hop Hoodios or the long-defunct Tijuana Brass added Latin rhythms to Yiddishe melodies, there was Irving Fields. The pianist who composed the 1946 hit “Miami Beach Rhumba” created the Latin-Jewish genre with the 1959 LP “Bagels and Bongos.”

Fields, who turns 92 on August 4, is still at it. “My Yiddishe Mama’s Favorites,” a CD of 14 classic Jewish songs and two originals that display his trademark eclecticism, was released earlier this year by the hip label Tzadik Records.

“I’m sort of reincarnated,” Fields explained with the artful directness that he brings to piano. “I do concerts all over the world.” Meanwhile, he plays six nights a week at Nino’s Tuscany restaurant in Manhattan.

Like his fingers, his musical ideas remain fresh. “When I was a little boy, I remember my mother singing me beautiful Jewish songs in Yiddish,” Fields explained. “When I did ‘Bagels and Bongos’ and ‘More Bagels and Bongos’ [1960], I did some of these things, and then I realized there were other beautiful selections I have not done.

“With the new album, I thought I would like to be more versatile. I’d like to play concert forms and romantic forms [in addition to Latin rhythms]. So I found selections that I have not recorded as yet. I thought of the CD title and the songs.”

“My Yiddishe Mama’s Favorites” opens with a high-energy “Sholom Aleichem.” Fields plays block chords and arpeggios at warp speed over bongos, drums and bass. It’s a declaration that the rabbi of rumba hasn’t missed a beat.

A stylistic jumping bean, Fields performs “My Yiddishe Mama” as a sultry tango, his “Un Der Rebbe Zingt/Shastil” medley as a charming cha-cha and “Mir Zol Zein Far Dir” as Liberace-turns-stride-pianist.

A master of melding melodies as well as rhythms, Fields deftly weaves “Tum Balilaika” into “Oifin Pripitchik” and quotes “Hava Nagila” in “Sholom Aleichem.”

The album’s highlights are Fields’s two originals: a tender “Melody for Moses” solo piece that sounds like Chopin after a deli lunch, and a sprightly “‘Yankel’ Doodle” that could sell both American and Israeli bonds.

True to his Depression-era upbringing, Fields doesn’t waste a note. He is an idiosyncratic master who bares his neshoma in each moment of sound or silence.

What’s his secret? That’s revealed in “Hava Nagila.” On “My Yiddishe Mama’s Favorites,” Fields plays a dramatic, eclectic, sometimes dissonant version of the song. Forty-eight years ago, on “Bagels and Bongos,” he played a livelier, Cuban-tinged “Havana Negillah.”

“It all depends how I feel mentally and physically,” Fields explained. “I have a format, but I never really play the same arrangement twice. I might add something or take away something… I’ll go into a creative feeling and do this spontaneously.”

Hearing both versions is easy. Reboot Stereophonic, a not-for-profit that champions overlooked Jewish recordings, reissued a remastered “Bagels and Bongos” on CD in 2005. And Fields takes requests at Nino’s Tuscany.

Andrew Muchin of Milwaukee is a freelance writer and co-host of the radio show “Jewish Waves,” archived at www.jewishwaves.org.


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