Monday, September 22, 2008

my yiddish heart

I had made some decent records, gotten good reviews and some airplay, but my career was still going nowhere (for all I know it may still be going nowhere). But a lot of musicians knew me and I felt respected, which was always of enormous importance to me. I got called by a singer to do a recording and the bassist was Mike Richmond, head of the bass department at NYU. Mike had played with Stan Getz, Miles and countless others and was doing the date with the singer as a favor, since she wanted a bass player who bowed well and Mike is among the best. While we were waiting for the rehearsal to begin we started some old Jewish man talk, comparing ailments etc. It turned out that Mike had a problem with cholesterol medicine and was forced to exercise on a treadmill at the gym (I pop pills with impunity). I asked him how he deals with the music they play and he said that he listens to klezmer music through earphones while he on the treadmill and pretends to be dancing at a wedding. I had never played Jewish music except as a trombone player at weddings and in the Catskill Mountains. But I had picked up a number of hard to get books of Jewish tunes, including some rare Dave Tarras originals over the years. I asked Mike how he would like to record a Jewish album. He liked the idea very much. I brought my books over to Mike's house. We set up a stand and stood next to each other reading through tune after tune. We picked some great klezmer tunes including an obscure tune by Dave Tarras, Shifra Tanzt, that would be the title tune of the album (Mike's favorite aunt was called Shifra). I showed him some sephardic tunes that I had learned from a good friend and fine singer, Robert Esformes, and I taught him two of my favorite nigunim (prayer melodies). We were good to go.

Mike had been playing with a great Moroccan musician Simon Shaheen, and he recommended that I use two New York musicians who were in the band with him, guitarist Brad Shepik and percussionist Jamey Hadad. He told me to contact Brad and go over the material, then we would go into the studio with minimal rehearsal, the way my most successful records have been made. I called Brad and set up a meeting in his house in Brooklyn. I had no idea what I wanted the music to sound like. I wanted neither a traditional klezmer album, common in the recent klezmer revival movement (e.g. Andy Statman) nor the kind of fusion record that combines the klezmer neshuma (soul) with contemporary adulterations (think, Klezmatics). I sat down across from Brad in his basement studio and we started to play a klezmer tune, he played in a very simple traditional style and I stopped and said I want something freer. He climbed up on his high horse and said he wasn't used to being told how to play. I packed up my flute, and Brad saw the money for the record date about to walk out the door. I spotted it in his face and I said 'let's just play free.' I took out my flute and we played for about 15 minutes, it was a natural. On the way out he said, 'why don't you write out some changes for the tunes you want to do.' I had been there before with Romero, who said the same thing after we ran through the baioĆ£ for Jazz World Trios.  Jazz musicians are a funny breed. Guitar players, like piano players, live through chord changes, so if I was to win his confidence I had to be good at what he was good at, finding interesting harmonies. Go figure! 

I had been in heavy writing mode when I recorded Three Deuces and I had just played Hermeto Pascoal's delightful and innovative harmonic explorations on Tudo do Bom. I sat down with the material and asked myself the following question, 'if there had been no Holocaust, and if klezmer musicians had been free to develop their music for the last 50 years, hearing and being influenced by jazz, what might it sound like? I was inspired and wrote interesting chords, finding clues as to the direction in the traditional music, linking different songs together with interesting harmonic interludes that would be the basis for improvisation.  We did the recording. Brad had flown in that morning from a concert in Israel and he had picked up an airplane respiratory problem, and had a hacking cough, but he played magnificently. Mike bowed some melodies that are among the most beautiful examples of bowed bass I have ever heard on a jazz record. Jamey was perfect, simultaneously playing traps and frame drums, without ever missing a beat. I played my heart out and dedicated the album to the memory of my mother Mollie Weinstein. The picture is Momma  and her four children, June, me, Cy and Marcia.

My son Jack the philosophy professor complained that my blog doesn't explain the philosophy behind my music. I rarely mix philosophy and music, but it's about time. The experience recording Shifra Tanzt concretized what I started doing in the original Cuban Roots and would become the self-conscious basis for what I have recorded since. I am a white musician who has made his mark playing Afro-Cuban music. I was raised as a white kid in public housing and had internalized the prerogatives of Black musicians to play jazz with a sense of entitlement. When I play Cuban or Brazilian music I don't mimic the traditional flute style. Both Brazilian and Cuban music use flute extensively and have distinctive flute styles. In Cuban music it is charanga in Brazil choro. I don't like to play charanga flute since it is very harmonically limited and relies on the top octave of the flute in order to be heard clearly. Although I record choros on my Brazilian albums I am not a choro player, they have classical technique and don't improvise very much. Instead I play like I own the music and so am free to be as innovative as I want to be. But I always play with great respect for the tradition. I don't play jazz to Cuban tunes, I play jazz with Cuban tunes, transforming the original through a jazz consciousness, but never losing the essence of the music I am transforming. This is something I learned from how Charlie Mingus would transform traditional jazz and blues into his magic music. Mingus more than anyone fits his music to the underlying composition. He doesn't just play bebop on changes, he rethinks what the music has at its heart and invents a new way of expressing the musical core. And so his music is never stereotypical, always changing and with perfect integrity. When I found harmonies for the traditional tunes in Shifra Tanzt I was not a musicologist trying to recreate what had been done. I was a modern musician in conversation with a musical tradition, a modern musician with a jazz sensibility. My music is rooted in the New York jazz scene. And I accept its standards: you have to be able to really play your instrument, you have to have a complete mastery of bebop harmony and beyond, you have to swing, and most important, you have to have something to say. The roots of my music is the music of the world that I love. I always look for musicians who play traditional music with profound knowledge and respect. But they know that when they play it with me it will be something different.


bacoso said...

mark-what a fascinating and informative blog!
I have resucitated orgy in rhythm after a lay off and now added this blog to my recommended sites.I am listening to The Orisha Suite as I type - I've always found it overshadowed by the stupendous Cuban Roots which it shares the cd with.Today I listened to it as a seperate entity and realised how wonderful it is-many thanks once more for your fantastic music!

mark weinstein, jazz flutist said...

Thanks for your support. I couldn't be happier that orgy in rhythm is back up. It is a wonderful site and a great resource,