November 13, 2007
Folk Songs For Far Out Folk
Reboot Stereophonic RSR 007
Zeno De Rosi Shtik
El Gallo Rosso 314-12
What constitutes Jewish music is a concept best left to Talmudic scholars with perfect pitch; Hitlerian bureaucrats filling quotas pro or anti; or perhaps John Zorn. Yet the influence of Jews on music – especially in the 20th century – is immeasurable.
Besides the numerous Jewish composers of so-called serious music, Jews have been involved in every facet of popular and improvised music from early Jazz and Vaudeville through Broadway and Hollywood musicals, the Swing Era, Bop and Free Improvisation as well as Rock, Rap and their derivatives. Along the way Jewish composers wrote many of the songs now considered standards. But is Jewish music, music written by Jews, music played by Jews, or is it sounds given a Jewish inflection, which Cole Porter for one said he strived to reach?
To move from academic philosophy to the here-and-now, that question, along with the catch phrase of the late 20th Century, “appropriation of voice” becomes germane when dealing with these notable CDs. Folk Songs For Far Out Folk is a reissue of a long out-of-print 1958 LP by Fred Katz, which features jazz-inflected arrangements of African, American and Hebraic folk songs. Katz, now 86, is best-known to jazzers as the cellist in the original Chico Hamilton Quintet of the 1950s. However during that same era he was also an arranger, songwriter and conductor for pop music sessions and a little later on scored such films as the original Little Shop of Horrors. Katz, who is a secular Jew, part-time Zen Buddhist and a Kabbalist, arranged and adapted each of the nine tunes here. He doesn’t play on the disc, although the three different sessions that were recorded include a clutch of top West Coast studio cats/jazz players, some of whom are Jewish.
Then there’s Me’or Einayim by Zeno de Rossi’s Shtik. It’s an 11-track CD led by the Verona-based drummer and featuring almost the same number of top-flight young Italian improvisers as Katz’s CD features American Cool Jazz men. Besides lines by Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman and Enrico Morricone, there are Harnick-Bock tunes from Fiddler on the Roof; one song partially credited to Molly Picon, a star of the Yiddish theatre; plus other pop-Jewish melodies such as “Hava Nagila”, “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen” and even “My Yiddishe Momme”[!].
The astonishing fact is that neither de Rossi nor any of his sidemen are Jewish. One of the most versatile of modern Italian percussionists, over the years de Rossi discovered that many of his favorite artists were Jewish. Figuring ethnic culture was the common ground linking artists ranging from Woody Allen and Lou Reed to Bob Dylan and Stan Getz; he organized Shtik to honor this cultural connection.
De Rossi, who has recorded with American reedist Chris Speed and accordionist Ted Reichman along with many improvisers from his own country, says he “worships” Shelley Manne, the late West Coast drummer, whose 1962 Contemporary record My Son The Jazz Drummer (reissued as Steps to the Desert) was like Folk Songs For Far Out Folk, one of the first jazz sessions to feature improvisations on Jewish themes. Shtik recreates a couple of those Jazz Drummer tunes as well.
Interestingly enough, Fiddler On The Roof has a jazz lineage as well, since a Cannonball Adderley-led group recorded a version of the score in the early 1960s. De Rossi and company do a bit more with that material. “Chavalah” for instance, balances on a modified march beat from the drummer, plus double-time comping and glissandi from pianist Alfonso Santimone. With the song recorded with a full five-man horn section, bass clarinetist Achille Succi is the standout here, using a twisted vibrato and lowing slurs to deconstruct the melody. “Tradition” includes a sample of Zero Mostel emoting in the original play, split-tone vibrato and snorts from tenor saxophonist Francesco Bigoni and an interpolation of the musical’s main theme. “Sabbath Prayer”, with American trumpeter Kyle Gregory blowing in the style Rafael Mendez – or perhaps Herb Alpert is a better comparison – sounds like what would happened if that Broadway tune was arranged by Moricone, who is actually saluted on Me’or’s first track.
Schmaltz saturates “My Yiddishe Momme”, which also seems to have migrated musically to the Italian boot. Here Klezmer-like lines echo from the harmonized brass and reeds as guitarist Enrico Ferragnoli downstrokes Neapolitan melodies and Bigoni’s vibrato is more reminiscent of the styling Fausto Papetti brought to his swinging bachelor pad records than Albert Ayler.
Instructively enough, the Taylor and Coleman tunes fit into the mélange with straight-time polyphonic turns revealing their melodiousness. Meanwhile, vibist Pasquale Mirra jumps and swings on “Hava Nagila” and “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen” as impressively as Victor Feldman did on Manne’s versions of the tunes. Overall, as well, with Italians’ overwhelming love of the song form also comes through.
More to the point is the treatment of the final two compositions. By osmosis it seems that Molly Picon’s theatricism has somehow affected the band’s dramatic reading of her simple tune as it now contains low-frequency, gentling octave runs from Santimone and the drummer popping, banging, tick-tocking and rummaging for sounds along his kit’s rims while bouncing what sounds like rubber balls on his drum tops. Latterly, “My Heart Belongs To Daddy” come across as perfect 1960s Bar Mitzvah party music with de Rossi playing a Twist backbeat, the guitarist clinking a counter line and tenor saxophonist Daniele D’Agaro making like a honky, breathy King Curtis.
Tradition, talent and entertainment intersect here.
The same could be said for Folk Songs For Far Out Folk, although the musicianship involved in the three ensembles is actually the prototype for the tradition di Rossi et all are often lovingly burlesquing on the other CD. Furthermore, despite the presence of a few “real Jews” (sic) on site, the two Hebraic melodies aren’t any “jazzier” than the other material.
As a matter of fact, both “Rav’s Nigun” and “Baal Shem Tov” mix Impressionistic classicism among the Yiddishkite courtesy of Jules Jacobs’ oboe and Juston Gordon’s bassoon plus the flute currents of Buddy Collette and Paul Horn, who successively played with Katz in the Hamilton Quintet. Unfortunately the flute playing from each is a little too legit, with the swing content mostly resulting from Mel Pollen’s bass thumps or Horn’s snaky fralicher phrases on alto saxophone.
The treatment of the American and African folk songs also lacks consistency. Still, years before so-called Americana became a roots music catchphrase, Katz’s arrangements work hard to squeeze the sentimentality out of these pop ballads. The briefer two though really only avoid lugubriousness due to guitarist Billy Bean’s powerful southwestern-style picking and vibist Gene Estes’ near Swing-Era rhythmic resonations.
Even the gentle swing of “Old Paint” with its call-and-response patterns and double counterpoint from the guitarist and pianist John Williams is more reminiscent of the George Shearing Quintet in the Hollywood Hills than the Watson Family band in the Appalachian Mountains. Again Estes’ toy xylophone-like taps stand out. His shadowing of Williams’ soppy low frequency arpeggios and clinking piano keys are also the saving grace of “Foggy, Foggy Dew”. Williams, who would go on to score standard Hollywood fare like Jaws and Star Wars is a little too low key here and appears to be itching – or is this projection – to shoehorn the “Wouldn’t It be Loverly” melody into the performance.
Soundtrack echoes even affect the African tunes. Bongo-flailing Jack Constanzo and four other percussions – including Estes and Larry Bunker – plus five brass men are allowed by Katz to almost push “Mate’ka” into Peter Gunn territory.
“Chili’lo (Lament)” and “Manthi-Ki” are more satisfying however. Each cements the Afro-American linkage with what sounds like log drums added to the percussion display. Polyrhythmic, the second tune makes use of layered, antiphonal themes that encompass horn slurs, slapping and pinging conga timbres, marimba reverberations and a crescendo of hand clapping. The first buttresses the bottom with tympani thumps, concussive bongos and bass trombone snorts, while the upper lines include music box-like delicacy from the vibes, punching trumpet triplets and what could be someone buzzing comb-and-tissue paper.
Probably viewed as far-out when it was first released, Folk Songs For Far Out Folk now sounds reassuringly conventional, with its then-odd touches part of today’s common musical language. Whether it qualifies as Jewish music is a moot point. But it, along with My Son The Jazz Drummer, Terry Gibbs’ Jewish Melodies in Jazz Time – as well as the discs of bongo-bashing Irving Fields and comedian/bandleader Mickey Katz – paved the way for notable, non-sectarian though unabashedly Jewish sounds of contemporary players and composers like trumpeter Frank London, pianist Anthony Coleman, Zorn and Me’or Einayim.
— Ken Waxman
Track listing: Folk: 1. Mate’ka 2. Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child 3. Been in the Pen So Long 4. Chili’lo (Lament) 5. Rav’s Nigun 6. Old Paint 7. Manthi-Ki; 8. Baal Shem Tov 9. Foggy, Foggy Day.
Personnel: Folk: American Folk Tunes: Johnny T. Williams (piano); Billy Bean (guitar); Gene Estes (vibes); Mel Pollen (bass); Jerry Williams (drums). Hebrew Folk Tunes: Paul Horn (flute and alto saxophone); Buddy Collette (flute); Jules Jacobs (oboe and clarinet); George Smith (clarinet); Mel Pollen (bass) African Folk Tunes: Pete Candoli, Irving Goodman and Don Fagerquist (trumpets); George Roberts, Harry Betts and Bob Enevoldsen (trombones); Larry Bunker and Gene Estes (drums) and Jack Constanzo, Carlos Mejia and Lou Singer (percussion)
Track listing: Me’or: 1. Unused Theme from C’era Una Volta in America 2. Tradition 3. Chavalah 4. I Heard it Over the Radio 5. My Yiddishe Momme 6. Little Lees (Louise) 7. Sabbath Prayer 8. Hava Nagila 9. Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen 10. I’ll Always Be Yours 11. My Heart Belongs to Daddy
Personnel: Me’or: Kyle Gregory (trumpet); Piero Bittolo Bon or Nicola Fazzini (alto saxophone); Achille Succi (alto saxophone, bass clarinet); Francesco Bigoni (tenor saxophone); Daniele D’Agaro (tenor saxophone and clarinet); Giorgio Pacorig, or Alfonso Santimone (piano); Enrico Ferragnoli (guitar); Alessandro “Asso” Stefana (pedal steel guitar); Danielle Gallo or Stefano Senni (bass); Pasquale Mirra (vibes) and Zeno di Rossi (drums)