Saturday, September 24, 2011

High Holy Music

CD Review: Further Definitions of the Days of Awe.  The Afro-Semitic Experience (Reckless DC Music, 2011).

Just in time for the high holidays (Rosh Hashanah this starts at sundown on on Weds., Sept. 28 this year), an album called Further Definitions of the Days of Awe, by a band called the Afro-Semitic Experience, landed on my desk.
The Afro-Semitic Experience, which draws jazz, Latin and soul influences into its mix, isn’t the only band with a black / Jewish bent; kosher soul brother Joshua Nelson, a cantor who frequently performs with alt-klezmer kings the Klezmatics, has his own distinct take – joyful, gospel-charged, and politically progressive – on black Jewish music. The Afro-Semitic Experience, founded by African-American jazz pianist Warren Byrd and Jewish bass player David Chavan, is equally good, if less well-known.
For a decade, according to the liner notes, the Afro-Semitic Experience has played the Selichot services that precede Rosh Hashanah with Cantor Jack Mendelson at his synagogue in White Plains, NY.  Selichot, Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (the day of attonement) – collectively, the Days of Awe – are solemn times of repentance and renewal, but Further Definitions of the Days of Awe manages to be both deeply liturgical and unabashedly celebratory, all at once. Really, that's the right note for renewal, not to mention welcoming a new year. My ancestors might not approve such joyful noise, but I say hallelujah!
Classic cantorial vocal lines weave plaintively through soulful arrangements.  An Ashrei prayer becomes funky R&B, the bari sax adding edges of Monk-like dissonance. Viddui, a prayer of confession, morphs into a Motown-based ballad with a hint of rumba congas at the end.  Adoshem (praise) is done first as smoky tango, then as classic salsa in 2-3 clave. “Sh’ma Koleinu” sneaks in as soul, then slides toward straight-ahead jazz. “Shomer Yisrael,” a song for the guardian at the gates, simmers in soul ballad mode, spiced with supremely graceful horn lines; you can hear the audience say “Woo! Yeah!” at the end of the track. 
For the record, I’m an urban secular Jew.  My parents sent me to synagogue for a few years to instill a sense of my heritage, but my only vivid memory of that experience is the time I played Queen Esther in the annual Purim play. Religion’s never been my bag, but I can say this beyond a shadow of doubt: if the Afro-Semitic Experience had played at our services, I’d have attended religiously.
Further Definitions of the Days of Awe isn’t a disc I’d spin every day, but it’s much more than a mere holiday album. The Afro-Semitic Experience packs a lot of power onto a little CD – it’s worth a listen any time you feel the need for repentance and renewal.
Mazel tov.  Shana tova.
-- Susan Kepecs                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          

No comments: