Andrew H. Walker, Getty Images Nine days after the deadly tornado that touched…
- Posted on Aug 11th 2009 2:00PM by Steve Hochman
So says Latin musician Arturo O'Farrill, a pianist who is one of the key figures in New York's Afro-Caribbean scene.
There's no cursing, per se, on 'Mazel Tov, Mis Amigos,' an album of Yiddish tunes given full-on Latin dance treatment. But there's some great cross-cultural electricity.
Heck, Jewish musician Herb Alpert built a music business empire on a string of ersatz-Latin hits, starting with 1962's 'The Lonely Bull.' But it was a year before that when a group of top New York jazz figures -- including such actual Latin leaders as conguero Ray Barretto, timbales master Willie Rodriguez and pianist Charlie Palmieri -- gathered to record a bunch of Jewish favorites. Newly reissued in the Idlesohn Society for Musical Preservation's series of "lost" Jewish recordings after decades in the vaults of the great Riverside Records label, 'Mazel Tov' showcases a surprising musical side trip with a fine, if ad-hoc, ensemble billed as Juan Calle & His Latin Lantzmen. Calle is actually Italian-American jazz banjo player John Cali, while others featured alongside the genuine Latinos included African-American trumpet titans Clark Terry and Doc Cheatham. Oh, yes, there was an actual Jew on the session in Yiddish singer Ed Powell, a mainstay on the theater circuit who fronts a few of the songs here.
It's multiculturalism at its best -- and years before it became fashionable. More than that, it shines a light on a vibrant period of multi-culti cross-pollination in post-World War II America. And more than that, it's terrific music:
The hoary hora 'Hava Nagilah' as a cha-cha? Sure:
Juan Calle and His Latin Lantzmen, 'Hava Nagilah'
Yiddish standard 'Papirossen' as a mambo? And a really fine mambo at that:
Juan Calle and His Latin Lantzmen, 'Papirossen'
Add such highlights as the klezmer-Latin bop of 'Freilach a Nacht' and the horn-heavy merengue take on 'Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen,' and in any era it's fun, novel stuff.
Just don't dismiss it as a novelty, says O'Farrill.
"It's not novelty; that's not the word," he says. "That's the way some might apprehend it. But there's a better way."
That's the way O'Farrill is approaching it in a concert Aug. 23 at New York's Lincoln Center celebrating the spirit of the 'Mazel Tov' project.
"It's more like 'rarefied,' " he says. "More like the rarefied kind of experiments that could only happen in those circumstances. There's a novel effect to it, but that can also mean 'rare.' These are the things I thrill in -- Tibetan singers doing hip-hop, things like that. To me that's the wonderment of that you're allowed to take generous heapings of others' wonderment and mix it into yours. It's really amazing."
There won't be any Tibetan hip-hoppers at Lincoln Center. But there will be O'Farrill and his Afro-Cuban Sextet along with the horns from Antibalas (a young Brooklyn group exploring Afrobeat with some Afro-Caribbean connections) and members of the Jewish-world band the Sway Machinery. And there will be Larry Harlow, one of the greats of the Fania Records stable that led the way with the '70s salsa renaissance. Harlow's Jewish roots were embraced in the Afro-Cuban scene, where he earned the earnest nickname "El Judio Maravilloso,"
"That's what we're trying to do with this show, celebrate both the specific history of this exchange and reaching out to younger people who might not have that history," says critic, educator and journalist Josh Kun, who wrote the reissue's informative liner notes. "So we have guys from Sway Machinery, who some younger people might know, chiming in with Arturo and Larry Harlow. Trying to recreate it, but also expand it."
Adds O'Farrill, who created and leads the Jazz at Lincoln Center's Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra, "It's a great feeling being involved in something that reflects such a great part of who we are and what we do in New York. And fun too! Going to be a lot of fun. The spirit of re-creation and replication is antithetical to the original collaborators. What makes this is all the great elements being brought together from new and different planets. And that is reflective of the original collaboration."
And what was that original reflective of? It was a very specific time and place. Actually, the time part stretched back to the early 20th century, the time when Jews met jazz.
The wave of European immigrants coming through Ellis Island, and then their children, merged their folk, theater and classical music traditions into the new styles emerging in the urban, multi-ethnic landscape. At the top were such figures as George and Ira Gershwin (the clarinet at the opening of George's 'Rhapsody in Blue' may be imitating an alley cat's wail, but that cat sure had a Yiddish accent) and Benny Goodman (taking the Jewish jazz influences of another clarinetist, Dave Tarras, to the top of the swing world).
Then there was the place -- or, really, places. Ground zero was, of course, New York City, where various Jewish neighborhoods morphed over time into Latin neighborhoods. (You think it was random that Jewish-raised Leonard Bernstein and Arthur Laurents populated 'West Side Story' with Puerto Ricans?) Then there was Havana, decadent playground for members of the community of means, at the height of its musical flowering.
The crucial spot, though, was an unlikely crossroads: the Catskills. With the emergence of the middle class in the '40s and '50s, Jewish families flooded these hills at vacation time.
"I've heard stories about the guys from Catskills resorts buying liquor in Puerto Rico and hearing tunes and saying, 'Gotta bring this music back,' " Kun says. "The Catskills were a laboratory for this."
Soon enough you had not only Latin artists playing for these audiences but Jews joining the bands as well -- sometimes taking on Latin pseudonyms.
"In the '40s and '50s a lot of people were wearing masks," Kun says. "Alfredito, who was really Alfred Levy, was a very respected early bongo player."
And of course, if they were playing in the Catskills, they had to play some Jewish tunes for various celebrations. Inevitably that filtered into the artists' "regular" gigs.
"Early on, there's the album, 'Tito Puente Live at Grossinger's' [recorded at the Catskills resort], and the first song he plays is 'Manana Nicauragua,' written by Irving Fields, who will be on the bill at Lincoln Center," says Kun. "So all this is about masks and fake identities, and for me it's a thrill to rip them off."
O'Farrill adds, "Chico O'Farrill wrote an arrangement in the '50s that's 'Holiday Mambo.' "
"O,h yeah," interrupts Kun. "That has 'Hava Nagilah in that!"
"Right," says O'Farrill, who as you may have guessed is the son of the great Havana-born bandleader Chico and has continued playing his material. "When we play that to this day it brings a smile to everyone's faces."
A short while back, in fact, O'Farrill was hired to lead a band for a birthday party of a very wealthy businessman -- wealthy enough that the band included Wynton Marsalis and Paquito D'Rivera.
"The gentleman is Jewish and at one point I recall we broke out into a heavy rumba 'Hava Nagilah,' complete with Wynton Marsalis playing that melody. It reminds me that we are never that far from being a bar mitzvah band. No matter how heavy or artistic it gets, we are still basically entertainers and still basically bar mitzvah bands!"
Meshugenah, man. Meshugenah.