Jazz elements have long permeated Jewish music. The cross-pollination dates back to work of clarinet doyens Dave Tarras and Naftule Brandwein in the 1930s and earlier. Thirty years before John Zorn hit the music world by storm with Masada Shelly Manne was conducting his own experiments in the melding of Hassidic melodies and jazz-based improvisation. This recent Contemporary reissue packages music originally released under the album title of My Son the Jazz Drummer and adds 45-rpm-sized edits of four tunes to the running time. Five of the drummer’s regular LA-area associates fill out the sextet commissioned to perform the tunes. Shorty Rogers and Teddy Edwards comprise the frontline on trumpet and tenor saxophone respectively, with Rogers uncorking his flugelhorn on four of the ten core album numbers. Pianist Victor Feldman, guitarist Al Viola and bassist Monty Budwig complete the rhythm section.
“Hava Nagila,” the “Round Midnight” of the Jewish songbook, receives first honors in the set list. Rogers handles the arranging duties and filters a hardbop attitude through the familiar melody. Budwig’s moody out of tempo bass vamp starts things off and the horns pick up the familiar theme in a clever staggered fashion, each trilling expressively in a cyclic chase before sliding into a string of solos led by Edwards’ calefactory tenor. Rogers’ flugelhorn is cooler in tone, but equally velocious in phrasing, charging through a quick chorus before Budwig and Feldman, on vibes, engage in a dual solo break. Manne sets up a crackling snare beat beside them that bubbles over in a quick spate of press rolls. A terse return to the melody signals the close capped by a single ringing piano note from Feldman. Along with the majority of the other selections on the disc it makes for accessibly adventurous West Coast 60s jazz.
Lennie Niehaus, Feldman and Edwards arrange other tunes in the set. The Niehaus numbers often carry the most intrigue in terms of playing to and testing the band members’ strengths. First among these is the German crooner vehicle “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen,” which sticks out a bit like a bruised thumb amongst the other Jewish songs in the set and comes off like an outtake from an I Spy episode with its Noir-heavy blues head and sliding crime jazz harmonies. Niehaus’s intricate rendition of “Bokrei Lachish” is the album’s longest excursion and a spotlight for aggressive solos from Rogers, again on flugelhorn, Feldman, Edwards, sounding even more heated here than on the opener, and finally Viola, who again set’s his frets to nearly fulminating with friction applied by racing digits.
“Yossel, Yossel” finds Rogers muted and Manne on brushes and features strong solos from the trumpeter, Edwards and Budwig, who’s pizzicato exposition carries intriguing flamenco fingerings. Viola’s filigree single notes close the piece out with a delicate cadenza. “Zamar Nodad” is the first of several pieces that make use of Brazilian rhythms and colors. The band takes a stab at the then hugely popular theme to the film version of Leon Uris’s “Exodus” also embelishing it with bossa nova accents and an unaccompanied preface from Viola on acoustic strings. Other tunes on the session docket include “Tzena,” which sounds like something out of the Jazz Messengers songbook circa 1960, “Die Greene Koseene,” “My Yiddishe Momme,” a melancholy-tinged feature for Edwards, and the title track “Orchah Bamidbar.”
Concept-driven projects were a regular repast for Manne during his long sojourn with Contemporary. This date of Jewish tunes sits solidly with other albums like Checkmate and Peter Gunn in its ability to put a fresh spin on popular material. The truly amusing and surprising thing is that despite the dated facets of some of the arrangements, the whole album sounds uncannily as if it could easily be a current release on Tzadik.
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