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Digging Into Jewish Liturgy for Musical Inspiration

According to legend, a Polish nobleman once hired a group of Old World klezmer musicians on the condition that they use written music. Rather than forfeit the well-paying gig, the musically illiterate players faked it by bringing their Bibles. They placed the books on their music stands, the landlord glanced at the strange squiggles on the pages and shrugged and the musicians played, pretending the Hebrew was some obscure musical notation.

Jump ahead a century or two to Maze Bright Studio in Tenafly, N.J., where, last fall, saxophonist and band- leader Greg Wall recorded his new CD, “Later Prophets,” recently out on John Zorn’s Tzadik label. Wall brought his Bible to the recording sessions, too, but not to fake out anyone. Rather, he opened it to specific verses in the books of Ezekiel, Malachi and Lamentations, and literally played the trope as if it were musical notation — which it is — reading the accents indicating the melodies as they are chanted in synagogue and turning them into gorgeous, fluid lines and jazz improvisations on his tenor saxophone.

On mystically inclined compositions, including “The Bones Drew Near,” “Can These Bones Come to Life?” and “Among the Exile, by the River Khiver,” Wall and his trio — Shai Bachar on keyboards and Aaron Alexander on drums, augmented by guitarist Gary Lucas on two numbers — use the ancient Torah cantillation as a jumping-off point for soulful, modern improvisations in much the same way that jazz musicians have drawn upon blues and pop standards for the raw material upon which they base their improvisations. The result is at once ancient and modern, surprising yet familiar — an accessible yet experimental blend of Coltrane-inspired modal jazz, Ashkenazic nusach and 1970s-era psychedelic fusion, unified by the guiding, spiritual vision of a well-informed student of and believer in both jazz and Judaism.

Wall isn’t alone in digging into Jewish liturgy for musical inspiration. In the last few years, Tzadik’s Radical Jewish Culture series, in which the 45-year-old Wall’s album appears, has produced a steady stream of similar projects. Saxophonist Paul Shapiro’s “Midnight Minyan” and Ben Perowsky’s “Camp Songs” both put familiar prayer melodies into jazzy settings. Trumpeters Frank London and Steve Bernstein have made recordings based on cantorial music, and London experimented with the improvisational potential of Hasidic nigunim, or wordless melodies, with vocalist Lorin Sklamberg and keyboardist Uri Caine.

In fact, Wall and London have been exploiting the Hasidic wedding repertoire together for nearly a dozen years in the band they co-founded, Hasidic New Wave, which grew out of their steady work playing with Hasidic wedding bands since the 1980s.

“Hasidic New Wave was basically our way of taking some of this music and experiencing it on our own turf as jazz musicians,” Wall said, “and also taking these tunes — some of them composed by kabbalistic masters, rebbes of Hasidic dynasties, from 100 or 200 years before — and liberating them from the greasy catering halls of [Brooklyn’s] Williamsburg and Crown Heights.” Wall will perform with Hasidic New Wave at Tonic on Norfolk Street in Lower Manhattan on September 14 as part of the New York Jewish Music and Heritage Festival.

“Later Prophets,” however, is Wall’s most personal accomplishment to date, and one inextricably linked to his spiritual evolution as well as his musical growth. Raised nominally Reform in Framingham, Mass., Wall did not find much about Judaism to be compelling until a series of seemingly unrelated encounters with religiously observant musicians and neighbors steered him toward his religious return.

First, a Lubavitcher Hasid whose lesson with saxophone teacher George Coleman immediately followed Wall’s called Wall and asked him to be his music teacher. Before long, Wall began davening mincha, or the afternoon prayer service, with his new student. Then, out of the blue, Wall received a call from Yosi Piamenta, “the Hasidic Hendrix,” thereby beginning a long musical partnership that included an immersion in contemporary Hasidic culture.

Then Wall moved to Jersey City, where he wound up living next door to one of the last members of a dying, inner-city Orthodox minyan, and he often got drafted as the 10th man. “It was the true ‘lunatic fringe’ of Judaism, right in my own backyard,” Wall said affectionately. “These people were out of their minds. I loved it.” Soon Wall, a self-described “fanatic by nature,” began studying Torah and Jewish prayer.

In the summer of 1999, he took the big leap. At a time when anyone who could put a few notes together was getting hired for big bucks for the biggest gig of the millennium — New Year’s Eve, 2000 — Wall balked.

“I made the decision I wasn’t going to play on Friday nights anymore,” he said, taking the opportunity of a new century to become a Sabbath-observant Jew. “And of course I promptly started getting a big boost to my career, making more money than I’d ever made before. And I started doing more interesting things.”

While many jazz avenues are closed off to Wall, who, still in New Jersey, now lives a religiously observant life with his wife and three children in Livingston, he has found plenty of work in the Jewish world, accompanying Neshama Carlebach, doing recording sessions and leading his own klezmer group, KlezmerFest, and a wedding band, the Simcha All Stars.

“Greg used his time on Hasidic weddings to not only absorb the repertoire and style and ecstatic energy of this music, but to study Torah, Talmud, Hasidus, texts, philosophy and practical Jewish information with everyone,” observed London, Wall’s longtime friend and musical collaborator. “After all these years, he has put it all together into a unified whole: He leads a religious, spiritual life and creates art and music that is an outgrowth of his studies, his belief and his life while integrating all the musics that he has encountered, and even creating new ones.”

“Later Prophets” stands as the culmination of Wall’s work during the past 25 years at the same time that it marks a new beginning for Wall as a creative bandleader. Infused with the composer’s personality, the recording recalls some of John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins’s more spiritually oriented work of the 1960s, while Bachar’s synthesizers and Lucas’s electric guitar give some of the numbers an otherworldly flavor suited to their origins in the mystical texts of Ezekiel. Along with clarinetist Andy Statman and a small handful of others, Wall is in the unique position of speaking two languages — jazz and Jewish. As a result, “Later Prophets” boasts a depth and authenticity that sets a new standard for “Radical Jewish Culture.”


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