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Jewish Melodies, Latin Beats Infuse New Jazz

What do a trumpeter from a band called Sex Mob, a popular hip-hop session musician and a Latino percussionist who once played for Yiddish theater have in common? They all play jazz infused with Jewish melodies and Latin rhythms, and are all featured in Tzadik’s “Radical Jewish Culture” CD series.

And this month, all three can be heard live in New York City. Makor will host the Midnight Minyan, led by saxophonist Paul Shapiro, on June 18 and Septeto Roberto Rodriguez on June 25; and trumpeter Steven Bernstein’s Millennial Territory Orchestra will perform every Monday in June at the Jazz Standard.

“I think that all three of us have a very good rhythmic sensibility that pervades our music and keeps it popping,” Shapiro said.

Shapiro, who is heard on rap artist Queen Latifah’s albums as well as a slew of big-selling dance recordings, demonstrates his dexterity with jazz and Latin music on the new Tzadik CD. There’s a version of “Ma Lecha Hayam” from the Hallel prayer done as a rumba, a raucous rendition of “To Life” from “Fiddler On the Roof” with a tango feel and an astounding transformation of the melody used for the blessings prior to chanting the haftarah in which the tune is reborn as a Latin jazz mambo.

The result is a sound one reviewer described as “soaked in Manischewitz and smoky lounge jazz.”

The Midnight Minyan’s repertoire is short on soloing and long on what Shapiro sees as “the collective prayer aspect of the music.”

“When people are davening, they sort of hum to themselves for a little while, then they go completely silent,” he said. “Then they step back in, intermingling with the prayers around them. This sounds to me like Ornette Coleman’s approach to free jazz, where everybody is kind of telling their own story at the same time and they’re overlapping, communicating with each other and not communicating with each other. That’s kind of a prayer approach.”

Once the president of his synagogue’s junior congregation, Shapiro is quite familiar with the inside of a synagogue. Not so with Steven Bernstein, a Berkeley, Calif., native who observed wryly, “Puerto Ricans in New York are more Jewish than Jews in Berkeley.” Bernstein, a ubiquitous figure in New York’s downtown jazz scene, plays trumpet for Midnight Minyan and leads a group called Diaspora Soul. The ensemble, which includes Shapiro, two other members of Midnight Minyan and several other musicians, has reminded more than one soul music fan of the legendary Mussel Shoals Rhythm Section, the Alabama studio musicians who backed up everyone from Aretha Franklin to the Rolling Stones.

Tzadik founder John Zorn approached Bernstein about making a record for the “Radical Jewish Culture” series several years ago, but it took him awhile to come up with an idea for the record. After Bernstein started listening to a lot of New Orleans music, it dawned on him to do an album of Jewish music with a New Orleans-style brass section and Afro-Cuban percussion, a kind of Gulf Coast sound.

The Diaspora Soul recordings included in the series are mostly music from outside the synagogue that has been taken apart and reconfigured. Bernstein has retooled such familiar melodies as “Rock of Ages,” “Roumania, Roumania” and the tune used for the Four Questions at the Passover Seder.

The third member of this interlocking trio of jazz musicians is percussionist Roberto Juan Rodriguez, a Buddhist who plays in Bernstein’s Diaspora Soul band but also fronts his own group, Septeto Roberto Rodriguez. His father, Roberto Luis Rodriguez, is a trumpet player who had many Jewish friends in Cuba. After the family immigrated to the United States in 1970, the elder Rodriguez played regularly at Jewish affairs in Miami. His son, a drummer, followed in his footsteps, eventually working in Yiddish theater.

Roberto remembers playing with a piano player named Marty, who had numbers tattooed on his arm. Working with a Holocaust survivor, he said, “gave me a sensitivity and an affinity” for Jewish culture.

Rodriguez went on to perform with Julio Iglesias, Paul Simon, Paquito D’Rivera and Joe Jackson, as well as with Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine for a record that received a Grammy nomination in 1991. The percussionist was drawn to New York’s small downtown jazz community where he hooked up with Zorn and downtown jazz figure Marc Ribot. When Rodriguez learned of Zorn’s “Radical Jewish Culture” project, he told Zorn that even though he wasn’t Jewish, he had played a lot of Jewish music, adding: “I’m a radical kind of guy. Let me give it a shot.” Zorn commissioned an album and, though Rodriguez had never composed before, the music poured out of him.

Rodriguez’s Tzadik CD “El Danzon de Moises,” whose cover features a red, white and blue Cuban flag with a white Star of David on it, garnered rave reviews. The recording –– by an ensemble that includes clarinet virtuoso David Krakauer; Rodriguez’s wife, percussionist Susie Ibarra; his father, and eight other musicians –– has a stately feel at times and a festive energy at others. Noting the obvious Jewish melody and Latin beat, a reviewer for Time Out New York noted that “it’s hard to figure where one style ends and another begins.”

This October, all three can be found on the same stage, when Rodriguez’s Septeto performs with Shapiro’s Midnight Minyan and Bernstein’s Diaspora Soul band at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York.

Jon Kalish is a New York-based newspaper and radio journalist.

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