Jazzing Up Ancient Texts

By Mordechai Shinefield

Published September 22, 2006, issue of September 22, 2006.
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In 2000, Ayelet Rose Gottlieb had just moved to Boston from Israel to attend the New England Conservatory when she received a care package from her mother. In it was a copy of ShirHaShirim, one of the five scrolls that constitute the third book of the Tanach. Many believe that King Solomon, born in Jerusalem in 1000 BCE, wrote the cycle of ancient poetry that deals with erotic love, expressed in the dialogue of a bridegroom and bride. Sitting down to absorb the book, Gottlieb found that King Solomon’s themes resonated, from the lush descriptive language to its story of a love affair.

The result is “Mayim Rabim” (“Many Waters”), Gottlieb’s latest album. It’s a series of jazz interpretations of the Song of Songs that she is calling a “musical midrash on the text.” Frequently, when an artist uses ancient texts as lyrics, they sound like stock phrases to fill in the compositions. When Gottlieb sings the Song of Songs, though, it’s clear from her sensuous intentionality that she picked the words first and later built the songs around them.

“I really felt like those words expressed the whole entire sensation, from your lowest lows to your highest highs,” Gottlieb said in an interview with the Forward, “your blindness and your fears, and everything that goes in your head when you love.”

“When I got married this year,” the 27-year-old added, “it was one of those moments, like Rosh Hashanah, where you examine where you’ve been and where you’re going, and you have your excitement and you have your doubts. ‘Mayim Rabim’ was a really nice way for me to sum that up.”

Though “Mayim Rabim” is Gottlieb’s second album, the theme of love runs throughout all her work. Before “Mayim Rabim,” she released her debut album, “InTernal-ExTernal,” on Genevieve Records in 2004. One of the album’s tracks, “Portraits of U,” was a haunting love story with whispering guitars, and the track “Al Mishkavi” (“As I Lay”) foreshadowed her foray into ShirHaShirim with lyrics about the dangers of rushed love. And so, stepping into the words of King Solomon from her own lyrics seemed like a natural move.

The fact that the poetry of the Song of Songs had been written by a male didn’t faze her. “It’s definitely said to be written by a man, but it’s spoken from a woman’s mouth,” she said. “It’s really so much about women and so much from the voice of women. Many times when you read poetry of men about women, it feels like a fantasy of what a woman must feel. But here it very strongly resonated with me.” The debate of the authorship of the Song if Songs also doesn’t esapce Gottleib’s notice. “So I really don’t know,” she said conspiratorially, “I don’t know who wrote it.”

Indeed, her interpretation is decidedly female, such as on the album’s best offering, “Tapuah.” The song, which in translation begins, “As an apple among the trees of the forest/So is my beloved among the men,” starts with a heavy beat that punctuates the words as Gottlieb sings them. Each line ends with gasps dubbed one over another. The verse finishes with the phrase “And his fruit is sweet in my mouth.” But instead of a virginal metaphor, the jazz instrumentation and Gottlieb’s vocal contortions have transformed the lines into deeply erotic poetry.

Gottlieb, who is involved with a number of non-Jewish jazz projects, is not concerned that her latest album might pigeon-hole her. “Sometimes I consider myself a Jewish artist,” she explained. “I’m not opposed to being called that, but I don’t think I’m just that.” And, she added, “I also don’t think I’m just a jazz artist.”

Mordechai Shinefield has written about music for New York Press and for AMP Magazine

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