In the liner notes to his new recording, Essen, Paul Shapiro is quick to point out that there is nothing particularly strange about a Yiddish jazz album. Cab Calloway recorded “Utt-Da-Zay” and Slim Gaillard was all over “Matzo Balls” and “Dunkin’ Bagel”. In the 1920s, ‘30s, and ‘40s, jazz culture and Jewish culture rubbed shoulders in every sector of New York City. The combination is more than fated—it’s history.
So Shapiro’s new Essen is not really novelty, though it feels like one in 2008. The playing here—by a fiery rhythm section anchored by Brian Mitchell’s piano and sailed-over by Shapiro’s own brawny saxophone and on-point clarinet—is rousing good jazz. But the tunes are loving shtick: Catskills routines set to a groove; funny voices; broad comedy that loves to jump. This good-time music is illuminated by great musicians who plainly embrace the music itself, making the whole proceeding more than novelty. It’s a reminder that, in American music, the “low” arts have frequently been bolstered by high artistry.
Shapiro’s “Utt-Da-Zay” is mad story-telling, the hysterical singer Babi Floyd going on about a tale him mother told him, all peppered with pseudo-Yiddish babbling that becomes a kind of musical scatting. But the band stomps and grooves still. “Oy Veys Mir” takes the musical form of “I Got Rhythm”, with the lyrics on the bridge being a series of nonsense Yiddish-isms. But when Mitchell takes over for a barrelhouse piano solo, the shtick seems purely like background. Shapiro’s tenor solo is gritty and swinging, but the musicians keep all their statements to-the-point. This is not an exploratory modern jazz album, but neither is it merely in-group mugging.
“Dunkin’ Bagel” is particularly hip. Folks familiar with the Slim Gaillard version will recall it as another “Rhythm” changes nonsense workout: “Dunkin’ bagel—splash! In the coffee. Matzo ball, matzo ball-o-roonie! Gefilte fish, gefilte fish-a-fruitie!” But Shapiro hips it up here nicely, starting with a boogaloo-backbeat that feels genuinely funky even by 2008 standards. The vocals are coolly harmonized with some hip dissonances on the A section, with the bridge still insanely shouted. Gaillard would have loved it, but he never would have played it this way.
“Essen”, which leads off the collection, is supplemented by the trumpets of Steven Bernstein and Frank London and Doug Wieselman’s clarinet—and also their singing. Using fun tempo changes and the occasional drop into funk, the band tells the story of a man trying to relax at a Catskills resort who is continually bombarded with offers of physical activity and FOOD. The choruses are glorious lists of menus: “Orange juice, tomato juice, and grapefruit juice, and apple juice, tomato soup, potato soup, Yankee bean, carob bean, cold borscht, hot borscht, sour cream soup” and so on. Fun! (Stuffed.)
Some of the tunes play more as straight jazz than as eastern European-tinged music. “My Little Cousin” is a blues-drenched arrangement with a melody to match. Cilla Owens sings like a big-band vocalist from the ‘40s, but in the interlude between verses, she and Shapiro’s clarinet scat a klezmer melody in a short snatch. Owens lays on the thick blues feeling in “Mama Goes Where Papa Goes”, even as she accurately pronounces the Yiddish words in the lyrics. If Alberta Hunter had been Jewish, she would have sounded like this.
In concert, the band is known as “Paul Shapiro’s Ribs and Brisket Revue”, and this music does, indeed, stick pleasantly in your gut. I’m particularly partial to the big-beat tunes like “A Bissel Bop”, where the whole band gets in on the shout-vocal and drummer Tony Lewis gets to swing the band as if he were playing with Louis Jordan just on the cusp of turning jazz into R&B. It would seem to be impossible to resist the urge behind this music: the impulse toward pushing cultural categories aside even as you dig into your heritage.
More to the point, I promise that if you walked into the Cornelia Street Café in Greenwich Village and heard the Ribs and Brisket Revue, you would be incapable of leaving the room. The enjoyment—the joy—in this music is grandly palpable. It puts a smile on your face. It ought to be the cure for the disease of anti-Semitism and the life of the party at once. Essen does not aspire to being profound. Paul Shapiro and Co. are too busy laughing and swinging to be concerned with tomorrow’s judgment. Fun: what’s wrong with that?