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Come Swing with Me

On May 25, a new sound was heard in Jerusalem. Combining the soulfulness and optimism of Moroccan Jewish liturgical music (piyyut) with the syncretistic and improvisational spirit of American jazz, the New Jerusalem Orchestra (NJO) made its triumphant debut at the 2010 Israel Festival.

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Grooving in Dimona  Omer Avital, Rabbi Haim Louk, Greg Tardy, et al., YouTube. Days before its formal debut at the 2010 Israel Festival, the New Jerusalem Orchestra plays in a Negev town. (Exclusive video.)

Arrayed onstage in a crescent, the seventeen-piece orchestra featured a wide selection of instruments ranging from a cello, viola, and violin to two ouds, a three-part brass section, a Turkish nay (flute), and three kinds of Arabic drums. A twenty-man choral group encircled the orchestra from behind. Matching the variety of tone colors was the diversity of the vocalists and musicians themselves: men and women, religious and secular Jews, Ashkenazim and Sephardim, and a celebrated tenor saxophonist from New Orleans. Center stage was occupied by the great singer and performer of Moroccan piyyut, Rabbi Haim Louk.

The performance consisted of piyyutim taken apart, recast, and propelled by Omer Avital, the orchestra's arranger, conductor, and contrabassist.  A critically-acclaimed fixture of the New York jazz scene during the 1990s, Avital has spent the last decade intensively exploring Middle Eastern and especially Moroccan Jewish music; the NJO is one of his first fruits.

Fusing the basic musical elements of Moroccan piyyut and the blues, Avital employed the original melodies as motifs, around which he and his troupe added layers of harmony and improvised solos. The result was a sensuous and sometimes raucous exercise in contrasting textures. The improvisations at the May 25 concert weren't overly daring, but they didn't have to be. The sustained elation of Avital's extended grooves powered the weird and wonderful mixture of tone colors splayed in and around Rabbi Louk's vocal arabesques. And just when the music seemed on the verge of bursting, the orchestra would drop out to give various instrumentalists their say.

The American tenor saxophonist Greg Tardy ended one piyyut with a bluesy solo so strange and so right that one could fairly imagine what it sounded like when Duke Ellington first transformed Tchaikovsky's "Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy" into "Sugar Rum Cherry" stomping her Christmas-time blues. In another highlight, the blind, Moroccan-Israeli poet Erez Biton vigorously intoned two of his verse tributes to Rabbi David Bouzaglo, a monumental figure of 20th-century Moroccan piyyut. Biton's recitation was a reminder that poems don't always have to be whispered, let alone mumbled. "Pursuing myself," he chanted, "I came after you, Rah-bee Dah-vid Bou-zaglo!"

Including intermission, the show clocked in at an imposing two-and-a-half hours, but the crowd was ready to let the NJO do its thing until the authorities turned off the lights. Fully conscious of the cultural import of their performance, Avital and the NJO's artistic co-director, Yair Harel, had penned a one-page manifesto for the program: a dissent from David Ben-Gurion's notion that forming an Israeli Jewish identity requires erasing all traces of the Diaspora. In the words of Avital and Harel:

After the hard trial of the melting pot, and the attempt to uproot the exile from the Jew, . . . we seek . . . to connect the past with the future, tradition with contemporary creativity, . . . [and] to ingather the exiles of the Jewish soul that were exiled in, of all places, the Land of Israel.

But Omer Avital is a musician, not a polemicist, and his true goal in bringing the exiles home is only to get them to swing together. Thanks to the expansive spirit of New York jazz, Avital knows how to do his job; thanks to his own expansive spirit, jazz is now part of the Jewish musical tradition.

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