‘From Bagels to Bongos’

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by Meredith Jacobs
Managing Editor

Blowin’ into town from June 5 through June 16, the annual DC Jazz Festival celebrates all things jazz with performers like Paquito D’Rivera, the Brubeck Brothers Quartet and the Brass-A-Holics Go Go Brass Funk Band. On June 9, the festival comes to Sixth & I Historic Synagogue where the walls will shake from the sounds of Latin-Jewish jazz fusion.

Arturo O’Farrill & The Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra with special guests Steven Bernstein and Anat Cohen will perform in From Bagels to Bongos, an exploration of the convergence of cross-cultural musical styles from the Catskills, Northern Africa and the Middle East. The concert brings together sizzling big band jazz, traditional Jewish music and Latin jazz, and features works by Latin jazz legends Tito Puente, Machito and Chico O’Farrill, as well as classic Jewish melodies.


Be it Iberia prior to the Spanish Inquisition, mambo dancing in the Borscht Belt or the album Mazel tov, Mis Amigos, Jewish culture and Latin music interweave at their roots.

“A lot of the rhythms, a lot of the modes are similar,” says composer and pianist O’Farrill. “A lot of great salsa music is in minor, the great klezmer is minor. The declaratory style, like klezmer music – the same spirit.” Blowin’ into town from June 5 through June 16, the annual DC Jazz Festival celebrates all things jazz with performers like Paquito D’Rivera, the Brubeck Brothers Quartet and the Brass-A-Holics Go Go Brass Funk Band. On June 9, the festival comes to Sixth & I Historic Synagogue where the walls will shake from the sounds of Latin-Jewish jazz fusion.

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In 1961, a lineup of Jazz greats performed on Mazel Tov, Mis Amigos under the name “Juan Calle and His Latin Lanztmen.” In 2009, music historian Roger Bennett secured the rights to the album and the Idelsohn Society worked with O’Farrill to recreate it with contemporary Latin and Jewish artists, including Jeremiah Lockwood (Balkan Beat Box) and Sondra Vasquez, at a concert at Lincoln Center Outdoors. During the performance, O’Farrill remembers looking down at the audience and seeing “a fair amount of Orthodox people dancing with Hispanic people – for a minute, everyone forgot their camps and divisions.” O’Farrill, who grew up on the Upper West Side, believes the 2009 concert gave him the opportunity to explore the Jewish-Latin musical connection “on a very big level.”

“I wanted to explore it further with a larger ensemble,” he said. “The idea of extending it to Middle Eastern and Sephardic was very exciting to me. No one has ever done this. If I had my druthers, that’s a whole school – we’d study Middle Eastern/Israeli influence on jazz.”


Married to a sabra “for a long time,” O’Farrill connects to Jewish culture. “What we are as a human being is a cultural fabric – if you’re open to it,” he said. Last year, he and friends, including Israeli jazz clarinetist, saxophonist and bandleader Anat Cohen and Israeli composer, trombonist and euphonium player Rafi Malkiel, planned a concert on the Upper West Side. They had thought of it as a community builder and then Sandy hit and devastated the community. “It turned from a celebrating concert to a healing concert. We gave away the tickets and made it an opportunity for New Yorkers to heal.”

He tells the story of a woman who spoke to him at the conclusion of the concert. She told him she had lost her sister a few weeks back and then lost everything in Sandy. She told him his music and his message were just what she needed.

“These are the things that make my life worth living,” he reports. “When you can touch people like that and forget if you are Jewish or not, Latino or not, Ashkenazi or not, that reflects the true meaning of Judaism.”

For Sunday’s concert, the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra will be joined by Cohen and trumpeter Steve Bernstein (check out his performance of “Let My People Go” from the 2011 Tel Aviv Jazz Festival on YouTube). Says O’Farrill of performing at the historic synagogue, “I feel like music is a kind of liturgy – especially for a jazz musician – the ability to mix performance life with spiritual life. There’s a certain expectation when you’re playing a concert hall and a huge expectation when you’re playing in a sacred space and a space dedicated to loftier matters than commerce. That space is really important.”

“I’m such a big Steve Bernstein fan, such a big Anat Cohen Band fan. We do this thing at the end, it’s a prayer, it’s a prayer of mourning, a Kaddish. Bernstein does this with four trombones. He brings out an Afro-Cuban guaguanco rhythm. For me it was such a life lesson to see this Jewish liturgical setting grafted onto an Afro-Cuban yoruban [West African religion] setting. At the end of the day, we’re just human beings. We grow, we give birth, we die, the next cycle begins. Black, white, Jew, gentile, we all do it. Everyone was on fire from the larger ramifications of it.”

From Bagels to Bongos, part of the DC Jazz Festival, will be performed Sunday, June 9 at 7 p.m. at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue. Tickets are $25 in advance, $30 at the door. For more information, go to dcjazzfest.org.

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