Jewish World Review Sept. 6, 2000 / 5 Elul, 5760

A day of rests, and notes: Jon Simon's "Shabbatjazz"

By Paul Wieder -- "HOW DO YOU handle the notes so well?" the listener asked the musician. "It is not in the notes, but in the rests (pauses) between the notes, where the art lies," he replied.

This story is related in the liner notes from "Shabbatjazz," the latest release from Jon Simon. It is an album of music from and about that restful pause at the end of each cacophonous week, our beloved Shabbat.

Ask Simon how he developed the idea of setting Jewish melodies to jazz arrangements, and he tells another story. In his car one winter, Simon kept cranking the radio dial, struggling to escape the Christmas songs. When he finally did, he landed on "Maoz Tzur (Rock of Ages)," a Chanukah staple. But he still wasn't happy, though now for a new reason. All the other holiday songs, he realized, had contemporary arrangements. But this version of the Chanukah staple sounded extremely dated.

Some, at this point, may have been content to frown or shrug. Instead, Jon Simon was inspired. A budding jazz composer-Simon's first release, "images and inspirations," included the score he wrote for the movie "Pandora's Box"-Simon had received some studio time as a gift from his parents. He entered with the idea of revitalizing Jewish melodies through jazz, and came out with "new traditions," a recording that did just that. He followed it with six more Jewish-jazz records, including "Zoom Gali Boogie."



By Jon Simon
Silver Lining Records

Listen to select tracks by clicking here.

-- Purchasing this CD by clicking on title helps fund JWR

Perhaps because of the playful title, its festive lettering, or the splashy suspenders and tie Simon sports on the cover, "Zoom Gali Boogie" often ends up filed with the kids' music in the record store. Simon says it wasn't intended that way, but he's fine with it; kids seem to enjoy the polyrhythms, and he sometimes wins fans among their parents.

Classically trained, Simon fell into jazz as a teen. Like many musicians, he hedged his bets with a fallback career. Simon's MBA is from Harvard, and his bachelor's in industrial engineering from the University of Michigan. Even today, Simon's Web site admits that he is a "senior executive and consultant to Internet companies" around the U.S., and not just a brilliant pianist.

"I've had many influences, and try to expose myself to a lot of music," Simon explains. "Within jazz, I tend to gravitate toward Pat Metheny; I find his music so rich and inventive. On keyboards, I've been drawn to... Keith Jarrett, Chic Corea, Oscar Peterson and Bill Evans. Outside of jazz, I actually listen to a lot of classical."

How does Jewish music fit in? The modal structure of Middle Eastern music is very akin to those used in jazz, he explains, and Gershwin used the harmonic structure of Jewish melodies in many of his compositions. "And cantors may have been the first jazz musicians of all, improvising on the melodies of the services," he adds.

Simon plays not Muzak jazz or intellectual progressive jazz, but the accessible kind, exemplified by artists like Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, and Bobby McFerrin. His performances have won him acclaim both wide and high at venues including the U.S. Senate, the Israeli Embassy, and one of Clinton's Inaugural Galas.

Sure to increase Simon's standing even further, "Shabbatjazz" marks only the second time he has recorded an entire album with a band, but the arrangements are both sure-footed and free-flowing, with breathing space for each note. Simon is able to increase speed without increasing volume, a welcome relief. And the recording quality itself is superb.

"Shabbatjazz" begins and ends appropriately, bracketed by the snappy, Latinate "Shabbat Shalom" and the nine-minute stream-of-consciousness "Adon Olam." In between, we take "A Sabbath Walk" down Tin Pan Alley, kicking autumn leaves into the breeze. We pray a "Hashiveinu" that gives sound to the voiceless yearning of a heart pleading for forgiveness. We visit Debbie Friedman in her "Mi Sheberach," and learn that her music deserves as much notice as her songwriting.

And what would Shabbat be without guests? A bright flamenco guitar introduces "Etz Chaim." A profound cello opens "Yedid Nefesh." A sprightly flute helps close out the recording in "Adon Olam." And hand drums, used throughout, nicely bridge the Latin and Middle Eastern elements of "Shabbatjazz."

Perhaps the album's most innovative instrument, however, is the human voice. Several pieces are warmed by vocal washes and descants-good alternatives to the New-Agey synthesizers that often mar an otherwise solid sound.

While the other instruments delight, "Shabbatjazz" orbits around Simon's stunning keyboard work. In case we forget, he reminds us in the middle of "Adon Olam," where he breaks into a piano solo that both astonishes with its dexterity and awes with its spirituality.

All the best elements come together on "Yom Ze Mechubad," the collection's best track. The ancient melodic theme is evident, not hidden as on some tracks. The sweeping vocals, the sparkling piano-each of the ideas that make the individual tracks special join in one uplifting work. It is a near-perfect piece of music.

Lots of Jewish music is appropriate for a campfire. Jon Simon's music -- whether "Hanukkah and all that jazz," "From Broadway to Hollywood," or "Beatles on Ivory" -- should be enjoyed by a fireplace.

Paul Wieder is a public relations associate at the Jewish United Fund and a columnist for JUF News. Contact the author or the magazine by either clicking here, or calling (312) 444-2853.


© 2000, JUF News