As a young boy growing up in Amherst, Mass., David Chevan was influenced by two towering figures in his life, both new immigrants from Eastern Europe with little in common except their Jewishness and the way in which they expressed it.
“I had two grandfathers,” Chevan told the Forward. “One was a devoutly religious Orthodox man, a beautiful pious man who would bring me to his synagogue where he taught me how to put on tefillin…. The other used to drink schnapps, smoke cigars on Saturday and play pinochle. He was a real adventurer with blond hair who fought with the Jewish Expeditionary Force in Palestine.”
Imbued with what he called an “independence of thinking,” Chevan found his own way to celebrate his love for Judaism: jazz. This High Holy Day season, Chevan is breaking new ground, combining religious intonation with instrumental interpretation in his first solo album release, “The Days of Awe: Meditations for Selichot, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur” (Reckless DC Music).
Since 1997, Chevan, a double bassist and composer, has collaborated with pianist Warren Byrd in the Afro-Semitic Experience, a black-Jewish jazz ensemble. For his new album, which features segments with Byrd and Klezmatics trumpeter Frank London, Chevan compiled songs made popular by Cantor Yoselle Rosenblatt, the chazan so popular between 1910 to 1933.
“What I initially thought I would do is put out a collection of cantorial music,” he said. “I realized [Rosenblatt’s] music for the High Holy Days was extremely special and was really something his people needed to know about. If I took the singing and made it instrumental rather than vocal, it would grab people in a different way.”
According to Chevan, composing the album was a painstaking process that took two years. To transcribe Rosenblatt’s recordings, Chevan said, he sat in his practice room with a CD player and a High Holy Day prayer book, following the words and sounds rooted in Ashkenazic tradition.
“These gorgeous, gorgeous melodies that I never heard before wrapped themselves around the words and gave them beautiful meaning,” he said. “There’s something really beautiful and profound in the melodies he has… that hit me in a deep level.”
Unlike his albums with the Afro-Semitic Experience — “Let Us Break Bread Together” and “This Is the Afro-Semitic Experience,” which include well-known Jewish prayers but are meant to have a universal appeal — Chevan sees “Days of Awe” as a unique vehicle for expressing his devotion to Judaism.
“I think it happens to any artist,” he said. “The further you go with your work, the more you become interested in your own culture.”
Indeed, Chevan hopes the album resonates with Conservative and Reform audiences (musical instruments are not permitted on Friday night and Saturday services in Orthodox synagogues). At a recent performance with his band at Temple Israel Center in White Plains, N.Y., Chevan was pleased with the positive reaction from the congregation.
“We had a chance to play the Selichot service, and they loved it,” he said. “It seemed to have touched a real central vein…. We actually accompanied the cantor during the service, and it was very moving.”
Ariel Zilber is a writer living in New York.