Of all the clever klezmer-jazz sides that have emerged from John Zorn’s Tzadik label (including the leader’s own string of Masada discs), none is more fun than It’s in the Twilight by Paul Shapiro. There is an inherent sense of play in setting minor-hued Eastern European melodies to a jazz groove, but Paul Shapiro also adds healthy doses of Latin music, rhythm-and-blues swagger, and humor. The result is robust and rousing: A celebration of Friday night and the coming day of relaxation, an embodiment of hanging out after sundown.
Mr. Shapiro is a denizen of the downtown jazz scene, as well as an accomplished contributor to various funk, hip-hop, and pop projects. But his eclecticism is not a form of blandness. His tenor saxophone sound is weighty and all beef. Both his solo and his arrangement style here are reminiscent of Blue Note sessions from the ‘50s and ‘60s—with as much funky hard bop as brisket, much of it leavened with a dash of clave. When he blows, for instance, on “The Sun Keeps Coming Up”, he honks and shouts like a Texas tenor, but then moves decidedly beyond the chords like a full-fledged member of the avant-garde. The track, however, has a rich romanticism that sweeps back in. Mr. Shapiro’s expressionistic blowing is never cold. This is, in the end, a good-time record.
As fun as anyone on It’s in the Twilight is the pianist Brian Mitchell, who plays like a mad jazz polymath. You probably don’t know his name, but he’s jammed with everyone from Mary J. Blige to Bob Dylan to David “Fathead” Newman. Here, he is continually on fire. On “Light Rolls Away the Darkness”, he combines funky Horace Silver with a thick slab of Eddie Palmieri. On “Lech Dodi Twilight” (the title track), he brings fist-rolling blues groove to the whole event. To my ears, Mr. Mitchell takes control of the session from the start, acting as the coal in its engine.
Twilight is not all groove, however. “Kiddush”, based on the Jewish blessing of the wine, is a beautifully voiced arrangement for all the horns over slow, free tempo. Along with the leader, Peter Apfelbaum plays tenor and Steven Bernstein is on trumpet. There are no solos, yet the track reeks of individuality. Also quite insinuating and contemplative is “Adon Olam”, with Mr. Bernstein’s muted trumpet leading an ensemble that evokes Herbie Hancock, followed by a very lyrical collective statement from all the horns at once. The modest vocals on the end of this track (as with the title track) are not a distraction but, rather, a way to bring the sound of the band back to the cantorial Jewish tradition.
In addition to post-bop jazz sounds, Mr. Shapiro also evokes swing and jump bands. “Oy Veys Mir” sounds for all the world like a variation on Slim Gaillard’s “Flat Foot Floogey”, with all the soloists weighing in with brief statements of pre-bop glory. Mr. Bernstein is superb—shaking his trumpet for Pops-like, broad vibrato on an ensemble section of collective improvisation before the theme returns. The closing track, “One Must Leave So Another May Come”, is a ballad with Ellingtonian tinges that might also give you visions of Charles Mingus in a yarmulke. It’s good company to keep. Paul Shapiro seems more than capable of becoming a significant jazz player.
But he’s a busy man with, obviously, eclectic interests. It’s in the Twilight, however, is the follow-up to a similar disc (Midnight Minyan, also on Tzadik) of klezmer-jazz fusion. With Tzadik promoting this kind of expressive, exciting, cross-cultural jazz, the jazz future of performers and composers like Mr. Shapiro seems in good hands. That this music is out there is enough to make you grab the hands of your sweetie (or maybe your grandma, Jewish or otherwise) and put yourself out there on the dance floor. More fun than the “Hava Nagila”, and hipper than most of today’s seemingly serious jazz, Paul Shapiro’s music makes a bid for serious good times.
Lord knows we need them.