Austin, Texas, bills itself as the live-music capital of the world. But in a city usually known for its rock beat and country twang, Cantor Neil Blumofe has begun an exploration of Jewish music and themes played in a jazz idiom. His new CD, “Piety and Desire” — released on Valentine’s Day — looks at the Jewish wedding ceremony through the prism of jazz.
Blumofe, the cantor at Austin’s Conservative Congregation Agudas Achim since 1998, began his foray into this territory with 2003’s “Moses Muses,” a meditation on the life of Moses. The recently released “Piety and Desire,” featuring original compositions by Blumofe, was recorded in New Orleans shortly before the flooding that devastated the city. Both CDs feature largely the same band, composed of some of Austin’s finest jazz musicians and New Orleans jazz luminaries Jason Marsalis and Roland Guerin.
Jewish cantorial music, or chazanut, refers to the Ashkenazic Jewish musical tradition, with its intricate prayer modes, motifs and tunes. Trained in the vocal cantorial tradition at New York City’s Jewish Theological Seminary, Blumofe clearly understood what chazanut had in common with the jazz music that he had learned. “The teachers I have had made it clear that chazanut is very much an improvisational art,” Blumofe said in an interview with the Forward. “Just like in jazz, we have charts, but it is up to the cantor to express the prayer and bring it to life.”
Though jazz has long been a vehicle for the exploration of spirituality, Blumofe seems to be the first to create an original fusion of jazz with this Jewish cantorial tradition. “I wanted to apply the traditional training I had in becoming a chazan to my love of jazz,” he said. “The emphasis on improvisation is the same in jazz and traditional cantoring.” Based on the interest he has had from such players as Marsalis and Guerin, the connection is promising.
Although Blumofe has been a life-long student of jazz, his interest blossomed during his time in New Orleans as an undergrad at Tulane University. The city itself has had a huge influence on his work, and the music and magic of the Crescent City permeates “Piety and Desire.” In fact, the CD takes its name from two parallel New Orleans streets. And the connection hits home in a particular way. Blumofe’s in-laws, who lived in New Orleans for more than 30 years, lost their home in the flooding that resulted from Hurricane Katrina. They recently returned to rebuild.
Blumofe’s music and ideas have also attracted some of the biggest names in New Orleans jazz, including Jason Marsalis — of the legendary Marsalis family. “I believe in mixing jazz with other genres and putting jazz in other settings, [and] this project accentuates a lot of what I think about,” Marsalis said. “Jazz is the base music, but Neil hasn’t lost touch with the folk elements of cantoring.”
On “Piety and Desire,” it is the Jewish wedding that comes to life through jazz and chazanut. Blumofe’s compositions re-create the wedding service, its modalities and prayers, exploring the meaning of the marriage itself. The music, played on instruments ranging from the vibraphone to the bass flute, captures the many emotions and nuances of the marriage, from the tender to the exuberant.
Extensive liner notes, written by Blumofe, highlight the multiple layers of reference within each track and the CD as a whole. The opening composition, “Fast Confessions,” makes reference to the many voices in the community “confessing” to the bride and groom, before the music moves into the confessional mode of the Vidui (the Yom Kippur confession) recited by the bride and groom before the wedding. “High Fidelity” uses a brass band jam session to anticipate the excitement as the bride and groom move toward the wedding canopy.
In “Seven Blessings in the Garden District,” Blumofe explores the heart of the wedding ceremony itself — the sheva b’rachot or seven blessings that are recited in front of the community. Evoking the spiritual work of John Coltrane, the band surrounds the blessings with a beautiful and expansive curtain of sound, suggesting limitless possibility.
“As 21st-century American Jews in our struggle to articulate what being Jewish in America is, jazz is a good place to begin,” Blumofe said. “It is a true American art form, and jazz has enough latitude to lend itself to these explorations.”
Michael Hurewitz is a social worker and freelance writer living in Austin, Texas.