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‘Chassidic’ Jazzman Strives for Authenticity

In music, as in any art, intention and biography can be tricky things. For example, should Richard Wagner’s antisemitism be considered when judging his work? Is it fair to take the composer’s controversial writings into account when evaluating his operas? And does the value of his art really depend on the kind of person he was?

Drummer Reuben Hoch is no Richard Wagner, but their work raises oddly similar questions. Hoch grew up attending yeshiva and singing niggunim in Brooklyn’s Hasidic Boro Park neighborhood before going on to play contemporary jazz with the likes of Dave Liebman and Leni Stern. In the late 1990s, as the first wave of experimental jazz-klezmer fusion crested under the influence of John Zorn and his Radical Jewish Culture crew, Hoch decided that he, too, wanted to combine Jewish music with jazz.

But Hoch wasn’t interested in joining what he calls “the klez-jazz movement.” In a piece that he wrote for Chamber Music America, Hoch cast doubt on the ability of klez-jazz fusioneers who lacked the Orthodox upbringing needed to “accurately portray the music of the Jewish people.”

“They had not lived the life that I did,” he wrote. “They did not have the religious background. It was what they did, not who they were.”

And here’s where things get sticky. For one thing, religiosity is no guarantee of musical authenticity. More to the point, Hoch’s Chassidic Jazz Project provides as superficial a gloss on the nexus between jazz and Jewish music as you’re likely to find. And it’s far less sophisticated than the work produced by many of the klez-jazz types whom Hoch so casually dismisses as poseurs.

The group’s debut album features jazzed-up versions of prayer book standards such as “Shalom Aleichem” and “Adon Olam,” along with Hasidic and neo-Hasidic tunes such as Shmuel Brazil’s “Bilvavi” and Shlomo Carlebach’s “Crackow Nigun.” But given Hoch’s familiarity with the material, it’s curious how little attention he pays to it. An example is “Avinu Malkeinu,” which Hoch and his cohorts treat the way a band of unregenerate beboppers would treat “All the Things You Are”: as a disposable launching pad for improvisation. You hear the tune briefly at the beginning of the track, and briefly again at the end, but there isn’t much in between to remind you of it. And there’s nary a hint of traditional Jewish ornamentation in the fleet solo improvisations of tenor saxophonist Felipe Lamoglia and guitarist Tom Lippincott.

Most surprisingly, Hoch’s own playing betrays little understanding of Jewish music. While there’s been no tradition of Jewish liturgical percussion since the days of the Second Temple (a fact that raises further questions about the relevance of Hoch’s background), there is indeed a secular one: klezmer drumming. Yet Hoch eschews traditional Jewish rhythms in favor of straight-ahead swing, funk-inspired backbeats and splashy smash-and-grab solos — more vulgar than Bulgar.

Indeed, save for two rather misplaced tracks featuring pianist Don Friedman, the Chassidic Jazz Project is essentially a jazz-rock fusion outfit on a Jewish kick. (A semi-legendary figure that came up alongside Chet Baker and Dexter Gordon, Friedman is incapable of playing anything poorly. But halfway through a solo reading of “Shalom Aleichem,” when he’s knuckle-deep in substitute harmonies and Bill Evans licks, it’s hard to tell what he’s playing at all.) Hoch professes a great admiration for Weather Report, and the influence of the defunct fusion supergroup can be felt throughout, from the gratuitous wind chime effects of “Avinu Malkeinu” to the manic funk-jazz of “Crackow Nigun,” in which dancing melody is buried under phat basslines and furious hand drumming. This isn’t an organic fusion of Jewish liturgical music and jazz; it’s a bar mitzvah band on steroids.

And that, as much as anything, encapsulates the irony at the heart of the Chassidic Jazz Project. For Hoch, the distinction between his work and that of the restless experimentalists who record for Zorn’s Tzadik label boils down to one of legitimacy and authenticity — even setting aside for a moment the difficulties inherent in this position. Even setting aside the difficulties inherent in this position, however, what matters most is that from a purely aesthetic perspective, Hoch fails to offer a compelling vision of how jazz and Jewish liturgical music might be combined. All the rest is commentary.

Alexander Gelfand is a writer, musician and musicologist living in New York.


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