By now, the vital wave of klezmer-inspired jazz that started and surged in the last 20-or-so years is hardly news. With John Zorn’s Tzadik record label and its “Radical Jewish Culture” series chronicling much of this trove of Eastern European melody wedded to swinging rhythms, you might think the world has had enough of the trend.
Paul Shapiro, however, keeps finding ways to enliven this music. Shofaot Verses is the latest of his amalgamations, and it’s his most focused effort in the stream of excellent recordings. This time out, Shapiro has asked Tzadik mainstay and guitarist Marc Ribot to join the band, bringing along bassist Brad Jones and drummer Tony Lewis. The result is an unusually raw and rocking affair, with Ribot coloring nearly every tune with a surf-guitar resonance and urgency.
Of course, the beauty of this particular mixture of musical ingredients is in the way those old, traditional melodies sound, kind of, like blues tunes, with their minor hue and their riff-like elements. The music has always felt natural and urgent, and when Shapiro lets his rich, rugged tone fly into improvisation, all bets are generally off. He is he kind of player who oozes feeling in every note, and having come up during the delirious Danceteria days of 1980s jazz-funk (before that kind of thing was semi-forbidden by the midtown NYC powers-that-be), every date is rich in juicy tone.
Shofarot Verses is no exception. The swaying backbeat of “In Phyrgia” will lock in you for sure, with a touch of Latin groove sitting beneath the melody. As Shapiro solos, he makes his tenor ramble and cry, fray at the edges and also sound like it has a little sheen of Texas too. Here, Ribot keeps things simple, playing a simple arpeggio figure in the background until its time to solo, at which point the bite kicks in. For a while, it’s almost a solo that a basic rock player might pull off, but then it develops into something else, with the harmony getting trickier and the feel deepening. All the while, Lewis is making it happen like crazy.
That formula holds sway on many tunes, but each one refracts these ingredients differently. “Search Your Soul” is a ballad tempo backbeat tune with a minor melody that Stanley Turpentine would have loved to sink his tenor saxophone teeth into. The drumming and recording, however, make this one sound less like sweet soul than like a grimy juke-joint tune, and Ribot’s guitar is Memphis slick on the ensembles and then dirty and blues-raw on his solo. “Get Me to the Shul on Time” has a melody more plainly from the Jewish tradition, set to a jumpy ‘50s-rock groove, again with Ribot coming out of the gates with a solo drenched in bite, like it was the very best thing on an early Elvis Presley record. When Jones and Lewis play quick duo, however, you’ll be sure the record isn’t rockabilly. “Surfing’ Salami”, well, I probably don’t have to tell you what happens when Dick Dale meets “Hava Nagila”. Finally, I adore “Halil”, which finds Shapiro on soprano sounding utterly like a more traditional horn — but with the fuzzed Ribot guitar matching his sound so beautifully that the two actually fuse into something new along the way. And the tune rocks with a Bo Diddley groove, which never made a piece of music less good.
A couple of themes here are traditional. Shapiro starts the record with unaccompanied alto saxoophone, a long and lush reading of a melody from the Yom Kippur service, but one that alternates between articulations that are traditional and ones that are pure jazz. Every second of it is riveting. “Ashamnu” is also a traditional tune, but it brings in not only the quartet playing a slow song but also cries on an actual ram’s horn (shofar). And darn if, in its stately spirituality, it doesn’t give you a little aural flash of Coltrane.
Maybe the most intense track on Shofarot Verses is “Daven Dance”, a simple two-chord vamp that allows the band to build intensity throughout. Shapiro gets to shout on his tenor, bassist Brad Jones literally shouts the tune’s title periodically, and then Ribot gets to go from cute to craggy in solo that feels like pure conjuring. It helps that Lewis plays the whole thing as though New Orleans were located somewhere in Eastern Europe, the groove of the American delta tied right back to some homeland or other. If one thing here tops it, that would be the closing track, “With Reed and Skins”, where Shapiro pulls out his most expressive techniques to duet with guest percussionist Adam Rudolph. Can you imagine Pharaoh Sanders climbing Mount Sinai to get a glimpse of the tablets? Soon you will.
Each time Paul Shapiro comes out with a new Tzadik take on his heritage, I wonder if the schtick will seem old. But it hasn’t happened yet. The pure energy of this band will carry you. The passion of the melodies was made for raw rocking’ and for the flights of improvised drama that jazz makes possible. Does that sound like one too many ingredients to work? Nope, it’s another gumbo that tastes like one thing: delicious.