Reviews

 

From Louisiana Cultural Vistas
By Ben Sandmel


Religious faith as a balm for [such] angst forms the core of Neil Blumofe’s Piety and Desire (Horeb). By profession, Blumofe is a chazzan, a Hebrew word for which the English translation is a cantor. He is a singer and interpreter of Jewish liturgical music who works with a rabbi conducting services, in this case at a synagogue in Austin.

By avocation Blumofe is an avant-garde jazz singer who has recorded two albums of liturgical music in New Orleans accompanied by such excellent modern jazz musicians as Maurice Brown, Jason Marsalis, Roland Guerin, and Matt Perine, along with a core of fine players form Austin.

The merger of these two genres does not represent as broad a stylistic leap as it may imply. Cantorial music is traditionally sung a capella and thus allows for embellishment, ornamentation and improvisation, all inspired by the flow of emption. This somewhat fluid approach must stay within a certain appropriate religious aesthetic, but it still allows considerable latitude for invention.

In his extensive liner notes, Blumofe describes Piety and Desire as “….music for a wedding. This is music that bestirs love and examines choice….In the telling of this wedding, we do not present a transfiguration, celebrating the ephemeral and triumphing only the spirit….We play rather, in the realm of the real, honoring doubts, unconcealing misgivings, archiving inevitable advice and preparing for the rapture of a honeymoon. We are intense with the fever of sex and the creditors of the morning after.” The music on Piety and Desire is similarly abstruse; this is not the jazz of regular rhythms and embellished melodies that typically denotes the New Orleans sound, and which has obvious connections with the secular Eastern European Jewish genre known as klezmer.

That aesthetic is certainly referenced on Piety and Desire, but not in terms of its familiar structure. That concept must be temporarily suspended here, much as one would do when approaching the avant-garde work of Ornette Coleman. The adjustment is well worthwhile for such rich, eloquent and challenging music. Regular readers can think of it as the omega to the alpha of Washington Phillips, the gospel singer who was featured in this column in the previous issue.

Ben Sandmel is a New Orleans based freelance writer and folklorist
Louisiana Cultural Vistas - http://www.leh.org/LCV/lcv.htm


Piety and Desire’ — a joyous, jazzy wedding romp through N’awlins
by Suzanne Weiss, correspondent
Jewish News Weekly of Northern California

“Piety and Desire” — the recipe for a Jewish wedding, or a couple of parallel streets in New Orleans?

Actually, right on both counts, if one is referring to Cantor Neil F. Blumofe’s new CD, which celebrates both the wedding ceremony and the spirit of New Orleans rising from the ravages of hurricane.

Quite a mix, but chazzan Blumofe seems to be quite a guy.

A graduate of Tulane University with close ties to the Crescent City, he is a composer and jazz singer as well as religious leader in Austin, Texas. He has put together this remarkable album, with a little help from his friends — who happen to include a number of topnotch jazz men, including Jason Marsalis, the youngest branch on the musical Marsalis family tree.

It begins with, of all things, a slow rendition of the Wedding March from Wagner’s “Lohengrin,” played in a slow, muted trumpet solo.

Soon this melody becomes deconstructed — perhaps paralleling the musicians’ intent to deconstruct Wagner’s anti-Semitic message — into the mode of synagogue confession.

Against a sexy, sad, jazzy clarinet solo with Mideastern overtones, the bridegroom chants a Vidui — a confession not unlike the one used on Yom Kippur. Blumofe, who composed the music for this recording, also is the vocalist — except at the very end when, after the glass is broken, the entire ensemble shouts “Mazel tov!”

As the ceremony moves on, we are not yet free of sad historical reference. A theme from Haydn’s “String Quartet in C Major” that is chillingly recognizable as the Nazi anthem “Deutschland, Deutschland uber Alles,” is intermingled with a Polish wedding song “Tants, Tants, Tants” (Dance, Dance, Dance) from the Vilna ghetto.

Blumofe points out in his liner notes that famed 19th-century Cantor Salomon Sulzer used Haydn’s theme in his own composed wedding music in an attempt to share the greater cultural milieu. That it turned into a reminder of horror simply enriches the experience. The bride and groom are aware that life can turn around in an instant and yet, in a supreme act of confidence, resolve to face whatever comes, hand in hand.

The next section brings us under the canopy with a beautiful Hebrew chant, accompanied only by a few piano chords. Then comes the processional, a traditional klezmer tune that accelerates with each of the seven circles the bride makes around her groom. A Sephardic melody, “Ladder of Gold,” accompanies the ascent to the chuppah. This is followed by a beautiful cantorial chant, the bridegroom asking to be granted true and meaningful speech within the relationship. Then comes “Betrothal Chant” with a jazz background.

“High Fidelity,” the next track, is a joyous jam session sparked by tuba, high-pitched whistle and wild percussion. The inference is that a marriage may be planned but the future is improvised.

The longest track — 18-plus minutes — “Seven Blessings in the Garden District,” caps the ceremony. There is a definite touch of Coltrane here, with bass, violin, cello and vibes solos introducing and accompanying the cantor’s voice. Blumofe’s melody creates a spiritual space.

The fifth blessing is a mournful dirge reminding us that we are, after all, in New Orleans — “Let the barren city be jubilantly happy and joyful at her joyous reunion with her children …”

The final blessing is like a march, with percussion in the background. The klezmer influence enters again, mingling with a Sephardic rhythm. As it gains power you almost can see a parade winding down Bourbon Street.

But the celebration is not yet ready to spill out of the synagogue. First you must have the Priestly Blessing: Marsalis’ powerful vibes solo leads into the traditional melody, played in counterpoint by the winds and piano as the cantor’s voice soars above. In the background, the bass imitates the ticking of a clock: Time will pass, things will change and who can predict the outcome?

To the tune of “Playpen Stomp,” the glass is broken, the lovers kiss and disappear for private time. A Turkish mode known as fasil, complete with oud solo, mingles with a couple of American folksongs, to usher in the public celebration.

You can write and write about this kind of music, a melding of ancient liturgy and contemporary jazz, but you really have to experience it aurally to understand its power. The musicians — Maurice Brown, Derek Douget, Alex Coke, Ben Saffer, Roland Guerin, Matt Perrine, Fred Sanders, Mark Rubin and Steven Greenman, in addition to Marsalis and Blumofe himself — are highly accomplished, the music is exciting and, if one could reproduce it at one’s own wedding, it would be a true blessing. If not, listening to it could just make you fall in love all over again.

 

From The Cleveland Jewish News
By Alan Smason

In his latest release, “Piety and Desire” on Horeb Records, cantor Neil Blumofe incorporates Jewish liturgy with jazz improvisation.
The title is an obvious homage to two aptly-named New Orleans streets that relate to Jewish betrothal and marriage

Blumofe recorded these tracks in the fall of 2004 and in March of 2005 with some of the brightest Young Turks on the pre-Katrina New Orleans jazz scene. They include drummer Jason Marsalis of the famous first family of jazz there and bassist Roland Guerin.
Cleveland listeners will be delighted to learn that local luminary violinist Steven Greenman plays throughout Blumofe’s recording, adding authentic Jewish expressionism to the work.

My favorite pieces are those in which Blumofe seems to inject a measured approach of his chazanut with the uptempo and carefree approach of the jazz musicians. There is much to be appreciated here aside from modern jazz including klezmer, classical and New Orleans street parade elements.

The entire project is extremely well-researched and focused on its message, which is how to create a Jewish family unit from two individuals pledging their troth under a canopy of love and commitment.

There is a richness in melody and expressiveness that the exceptional musicians exhibit along with Blumofe’s talented vocals. This was evident in Blumofe’s previous release, “Moses’s Muses,” in which he recounted the story of the biblical figure’s life in song.
“Piety and Desire” will continue to generate great praise for Blumofe and the talented ensemble with whom he has chosen to keep musical company.

 

Cadence Magazine

PIETY AND DESIRE (Horeb 2) features music for a wedding, composed by singer NEIL BLUMOFE (Fast Confession/ Revolutions/ In the Tent of Meeting/ High Fidelity/ Seven Blessings in the Garden District/ Euphrosyne, Aglaia and Thalia/ Playpen Stomp. 66:07), and containing elements of mainstream Jazz along with traditional Jewish litur- gical formulae. Like his previous release (3/05, p.28), Blumofe’s current project provides numerous solo opportunities for Jason Marsalis, Alex Coke, and Maurice Brown in swinging situations that appeal to a broad Jazz audience. The singer chants solemnly and delivers sacred verses with passion. On “High Fidelity,” he introduces a traditional New Orleans street band to his program, integrating their casual celebration with his own cantorial prayers. The band (Blumofe, vcl; Jason Marsalis, d, vib, whistle; Maurice Brown, tpt; Derek Douget, ss, as, ts; Alex Coke, flt, b flt, ts; Ben Saffer, cl, b cl; Roland Guerin, b; Matt Perrine, tba; Fred Sanders, p, cel; Mark Rubin, oud, b; Steven Greenman, vln. Nov-Dec, 2004 & Mar 2005, New Orleans, LA) picks this one up and runs with it, emphasizing the uni- versal nature of Jazz in general. Blumofe’s solemn chants and Marsalis’ lyrical vibraphone adventures give the session a warm texture. Beginning with a traditional wedding ceremony and closing with a dance, the composer’s marriage of solemn prayer with passionate instrumental refrains provides a moving experience.

ETHNIC MUSIC
Neil Blumofe's "Piety and Desire": A Triumph.

Horeb Records released their latest CD, Piety and Desire. Original music composed by Neil Blumofe, cantor and jazz vocalist, bringing together the resounding voices of jazz with traditional Jewish liturgy and chant. Blumofe’s music summons the world as we signify love – past, present and future. Recorded in New Orleans, Piety and Desire is as well - a love song to the times, places and people of that great city. This album brings together top jazz musicians such as Jason Marsalis, Roland Guerin, Maurice Brown and Alex Coke as well as Jewish musicians Mark Rubin and Steven Greenman, whose work, in partnership with Blumofe’s vocals and fine cantorial improvisations create a rare collaboration of excellence and spirit. The music, played on instruments ranging from the vibraphone to the bass flute, captures the many emotions and nuances of the marriage, from the tender to the exuberant.

The Review: Piety and Desire is a monumental musical accomplishment. At first, I did not know what to make out of it? How to classify and categorize this music? For it has all the elements, wealth and epic traits of a Ben Hur production, a blend of an ethereal bridal chorus and cantorial ecstasy, a Salome imperial dance, a tabernacle crescendo, a Sanhedrin liturgical chant, a humanistic New Orleans Jazz, a sacred Gypsy flair a la Bartok, a Selicha (Confession) mode in a synagogue, a bleeding rebellious ballade from the Vilna ghetto, a mystical Judaic anthem, a mystic beauty of a Budapest mysterious unfinished symphony awaiting the grand entrance of a Mata Hari being transformed into a priestess. The sounds of clarinet, muted trumpet, the cadence and rhythm of the drums, maybe a hidden outcry of a Shofar, daring violin strokes, and the voice of Neil Blumofe grab your whole universe and transmute it into an elixir of a holy musical exodus. The music is humanistic yet defiant. The arrangements challenge dogmatic music, for the orchestration embraces a multitude of instruments rarely used in one single musical composition, especially, when the soprano sax flirts with the oud, and the vibraphone melt into a tuba. Jason Marsalis was a magician on the drums, whistle and vibraphone. Alex Coke did a marvelous job with his bass flute and tenor sax. The tuba of Matt Perrine was extraordinary. Ben Shaffer with his sensuous clarinet, Maurice Brown with his melodiously bursting trumpet, Fred Sanders with his virtuosity on piano added a magical ambiance to "Piety and Desire". Equally powerful and enchanting are the musical vibs and performance of Derek Douget on alto and soprano sax, Mark Rubin and Roland Guerin on bass, and Steven Greenman on violin.

The track "In The Tent of Meeting", invites you to experience the esthetic and deep message of beauty and truth. In the track "Seven Blessings In The Garden District", you sail into the immense ocean of joy, enchanting dreams and a rendez-vous with a brighter future.

Blumofe's voice is powerful, yet richly lyrical. This CD is a pure magic. A masterpiece. An incomprehensible musical virtuosity and vocal beauty. All compositions are by Neil Blumofe. And each piece is as enigmatic, varied and mesmerizing as the existentialistic interpretations of the Bible or a space odyssey. It is also philosophical, religious, rhythmic, lyrical, intellectual and nostalgic. The beauty and wealth of the music confused me and delighted me. You got to buy this CD. It is a masterpiece, a human chronicle, an outstanding musical accomplishment.

Rating: Four stars out of five. Reviewer: Maximillien de Lafayette, for the New York Monthly Herald.
Horeb Records, Austin, TX, USA.

 

Neil Blumofe :: Jazz CD Release 2006 :: Piety and Desire
Review by Cindy McLeod

Cantor and composer Neil Blumofe has created a seminal piece of work with his 2006 release Piety and Desire, a rare and exotic blend of free form jazz and Jewish music genres.

The thematic project is an exploration into Jewish music and themes through the jazz medium, and is created for a wedding service. Recorded in New Orleans just before the floods that devastated the city, Piety and Desire is infused with the spirit and sound of that city, including performances by New Orleans natives Jason Marsalis and Roland Guerin, and the title of the CD, named after two streets.

Piety and Desire is a deep and complex merging of musical, spiritual, and improvisational ideas integrating into one, creating a contemporary sound upon a traditional base. Blumofe, the cantor at Austin's Conservative Congregation Agudas Achim since 1988, first expressed his musical vision with his 2003 release Moses Muses. His new CD Piety and Desire runs in a similar vein, a fusion of Jewish liturgy and chant with some of jazz music's finest voices playing an eclectic choice of instrumentation. The musicians develop the story through the motifs, melodies, and modes of cantorial prayer in an improvised, free form jazz idiom.

Blumfole utilizes the parallels of improvisation and interpretation that run between Jewish Cantorial tradition and jazz to tell the tale of a Jewish wedding ceremony. His arrangements, which include unusual instrumentation such as bass flute, tuba, bass clarinet, and oud alongside more traditional jazz instruments, capture a range of emotion from anticipation to reflection, sobriety to abandon as the days leading up to and after the ceremony unfold. These arrangements describe the aural scene for the cantor to paint the details of the service with his performance of prayer, creating an exciting fusion of traditional eastern styles with western jazz idiom.

As the story opens, anticipation builds before the wedding ceremony as the bride and groom are offered advice from the community, and bustling preparations are made for the celebration. The music moves from the quiet opening bars of "Fast Connection" where Wagners "Bridal March," is intoned by the trumpet, and intensifies in a free form cacophony of voices, falling into the rhythm of a second line march. The bride and groom fast in preparation, their prayers and recitations a confession and a shedding of sins before they are called to appear before God. The slow procession up the isle turns to a traditional klezmer rhythm upon the bride reaching the groom. The feel moves from klezmer to a passionate Latin as the violin plays a soulful melody for the couple as they take their first steps as partners. They begin the second step to "The Tent of the Meeting", where an ascent beings to a place of honesty and truth. The music is constructed upon a traditional Sephardic wedding song from Turkey as the Betrothal is chanted. "High Fidelity" introduces a joyous brass band feel to accompany the mystical union of the couple, the swing feel written with a Jewish chant motif. "Seven Blessings in the Garden District" caps the ceremony, signifying the couple is eternally connected as it moves through the seven blessings, the music thoughtful and expansive. Euphosyne, Aglaia and Thalia is a Priestly blessing made as an offering to the perfect union. The two parts of the melody act in counterpoint to one another, the winds and the piano suspended by the timekeeping bass. At last the final step is made and the mood celebratory as a medley of "I Never Will Marry" and "Jubilee" blend with a Turkish fasil influence, voiced through the use of the oud. The mood is happy and celebratory as the family and friends gather to congratulation the couple.

With Piety and Desire, Neil Blumofe has taken the most universal of themes, that of the union of man and woman, and expounded upon it in a reverent, multi-dimensional and evocative work. He steps into the musical realm that embraces Mingus and John Coltrane, and delivers the message of love, lover and beloved in this important work that sees no limitations of time nor boundaries. Highly recommended.
www.jazzelements.com

 

An Article by Michael Hurewitz for The Forward

A Texan Cantor Infuses Jewish Music With New Orleans Flavor
March 10, 2006

Austin, Texas, bills itself as the live-music capital of the world. But in a city usually known for its rock beat and country twang, Cantor Neil Blumofe has begun an exploration of Jewish music and themes played in a jazz idiom. His new CD, "Piety and Desire" — released on Valentine's Day — looks at the Jewish wedding ceremony through the prism of jazz.

Blumofe, the cantor at Austin's Conservative Congregation Agudas Achim since 1998, began his foray into this territory with 2003's "Moses Muses," a meditation on the life of Moses. The recently released "Piety and Desire," featuring original compositions by Blumofe, was recorded in New Orleans shortly before the flooding that devastated the city. Both CDs feature largely the same band, composed of some of Austin's finest jazz musicians and New Orleans jazz luminaries Jason Marsalis and Roland Guerin.
Jewish cantorial music, or chazanut, refers to the Ashkenazic Jewish musical tradition, with its intricate prayer modes, motifs and tunes. Trained in the vocal cantorial tradition at New York City's Jewish Theological Seminary, Blumofe clearly understood what chazanut had in common with the jazz music that he had learned. "The teachers I have had made it clear that chazanut is very much an improvisational art," Blumofe said in an interview with the Forward. "Just like in jazz, we have charts, but it is up to the cantor to express the prayer and bring it to life."

Though jazz has long been a vehicle for the exploration of spirituality, Blumofe seems to be the first to create an original fusion of jazz with this Jewish cantorial tradition. "I wanted to apply the traditional training I had in becoming a chazan to my love of jazz," he said. "The emphasis on improvisation is the same in jazz and traditional cantoring." Based on the interest he has had from such players as Marsalis and Guerin, the connection is promising.

Although Blumofe has been a life-long student of jazz, his interest blossomed during his time in New Orleans as an undergrad at Tulane University. The city itself has had a huge influence on his work, and the music and magic of the Crescent City permeates "Piety and Desire." In fact, the CD takes its name from two parallel New Orleans streets. And the connection hits home in a particular way. Blumofe's in-laws, who lived in New Orleans for more than 30 years, lost their home in the flooding that resulted from Hurricane Katrina. They recently returned to rebuild.

Blumofe's music and ideas have also attracted some of the biggest names in New Orleans jazz, including Jason Marsalis — of the legendary Marsalis family. "I believe in mixing jazz with other genres and putting jazz in other settings, [and] this project accentuates a lot of what I think about," Marsalis said. "Jazz is the base music, but Neil hasn't lost touch with the folk elements of cantoring."

On "Piety and Desire," it is the Jewish wedding that comes to life through jazz and chazanut. Blumofe's compositions re-create the wedding service, its modalities and prayers, exploring the meaning of the marriage itself. The music, played on instruments ranging from the vibraphone to the bass flute, captures the many emotions and nuances of the marriage, from the tender to the exuberant.

Extensive liner notes, written by Blumofe, highlight the multiple layers of reference within each track and the CD as a whole. The opening composition, "Fast Confessions," makes reference to the many voices in the community "confessing" to the bride and groom, before the music moves into the confessional mode of the Vidui (the Yom Kippur confession) recited by the bride and groom before the wedding. "High Fidelity" uses a brass band jam session to anticipate the excitement as the bride and groom move toward the wedding canopy.

In "Seven Blessings in the Garden District," Blumofe explores the heart of the wedding ceremony itself — the sheva b'rachot or seven blessings that are recited in front of the community. Evoking the spiritual work of John Coltrane, the band surrounds the blessings with a beautiful and expansive curtain of sound, suggesting limitless possibility.

"As 21st-century American Jews in our struggle to articulate what being Jewish in America is, jazz is a good place to begin," Blumofe said. "It is a true American art form, and jazz has enough latitude to lend itself to these explorations."
Michael Hurewitz is a social worker and freelance writer living in Austin, Texas.

 

A Review by Kate Kaiser of Jazz Now

This is a very unusual production in that it successfully attempts to translate the suffering of the Jewish people in the 20th century into the music of Jazz, using the ancient story of Moses as vehicle to tell these complex tales. The liner notes explain "In this telling, we present this sacred tale [the journey and life of Moses] in the American vernacular - the pulse of jazz. The sacred chants of the synagogue form a natural union with Jazz." I was stunned about the musical richness and intellectual depths offered by this production. Cantor Neil Blumofe, who composed all tracks, is a magical story teller, outstanding musician and sensible teacher. This is not an album to consume casually and I promise that the more often you listen, the more you will hear and find reward in becoming part of a unique Jazz experience. The extensive liner notes contain detailed explanations for each tune, making Moses' Muses an experience for mind, soul, and ears alike. My personal favorite is "Mt. Nebo" which mourns and celebrates the death of Moses and - in the Jazz analogy context - honors the New Orleans funeral traditions. Jason Marsalis' drumming on this track is nothing short of fabulous. He displays a lot of talent as a forceful, yet sensitive leader of the rhythm section throughout the album. I would like to close this review with another quote from the liner notes "Jazz is a vital music, informing the realism of the American experience, each note a lesson, collectively, swinging us forward. Jazz is deep enough to question, wide enough to hold us together." Enjoy!

 

A Review by George Robinson of The Jewish Week (New York)

A Black-Jewish Chord

Neil Blumofe: “Moses’ Muses” (Horeb)

Well, it’s not often I get to say this but “Moses’ Muses” is unlike any other Jewish music recording I’ve heard in a very long time, if not ever. Blumofe is a hazan whose own musical tastes run to John Coltrane and (I’m betting) Pharoah Sanders, and this CD is a musical biography of Moses in post-bop jazz. Drawing down the spiritual ancestry of John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” and other free-jazz masters, Blumofe mixes in synagogue music and chant and the result is genuinely unusual. The band behind him is excellent, particularly the reed section of Derek Douget (tenor and alto), Samir Zarif (baritone and soprano), Alex Coke (tenor and flute) and Ben Saffer (clarinet and bass clarinet). Does the concept work? I’m not sure, but I’m willing to keep listening, and that is no small compliment. Available from www.neilblumofe.com.

Rating: 4 stars.

 

A Review by Ben Jacobson of The Jerusalem Post

Where Hazanut Meets Jazz
Dec. 8, 2004

NEIL BLUMOFE
Moses' Muses
(Horeb Records)

There's a tremendous buzz about the new mixing of freeform jazz with various Jewish musical genres, and here we have a prime example of new light being brough down thanks to such progressive salad making.

Neil Blumofe is a Chicago area-raised, Manhattan Conservative seminary-trained, Austin-based cantor. Here he teams up with New Orleans jazz scene luminaries (including Jason Marsalis, Roland Guerin and Fred Sanders) to explore the story of Moses, joining hazanut and jazz in an entirely original way.

"Steeplechase" draws from a Sephardi melody to Exodus's "Song of the Sea" while Blumofe gives his best hazanut improvisations using the relevant text.
On "15 Stairs," we hear his attempt to use his voice as a saxophone, with mixed results. But the real treat here is the live (with audience) recording of "The Quail," in which Blumofe chants over and over, "Refa na" ("please heal me") in a playful interaction with the rest of the ensemble.

The jam structures here lead us between motifs by sometimes fading in and out of specific meters and sometimes (as in the case of "Mt. Sinai" and "Blessings and Curses") abruptly switching themes. This not only conveys the feeling of the truly freeform jazz of the masters, but also establishes an overall mood of wandering through the wilderness - a theme central to Blumofe's reading of Moses as an archetypal persona.

The WNYC New Sounds Listener Poll

Moses' Muses has been nominated as one of 2004's best CDs.

Cadence Magazine

NEIL BLUMOFE’s MOSES’ MUSES asserts a pervasive New York ambiance, specifically the now
venerable Lower East Side Scene. Part of it stems from the program which flies a banner rich in Jewish and Hassidic hues and textures. Blumofe’s band is custom-built to handle the long-form jams. His own vocal style incorporates an abiding Cantorial influence coupled with a shrewd sense of timing and placement. He waits in the wings on the opening “Steeplechase” until the tune’s final minutes and in so doing achieves a dramatic entrance atop the swirling horn-fueled ensemble. The harmonies between his wordless phrases and the horn section on “Blessings and Curses,” which morph into Second Line-fueled New Orleans street band theatre, are the work of an astute arranger’s mind.