Paul Shapiro: Midnight Minyan (2003)
Jewish music is sexy. Slow, meandering melodies conjure hot, arid lands or intimate moments at the synagogue. Based on prayer, it's a mortal's direct link to divinely personal experiences with God. But its surface can evoke sensual undulations of the hips and exotic murmurs of the lips.
On his debut disc as a leader, saxophonist Paul Shapiro combines ancient melodies with contemporary improvisation. Arrangements of seven traditional songs, two originals, and one tune from Fiddler On The Roof combine to build a sincere tribute to Shapiro's heritage.
With a front line of two saxophones and a trumpet, Midnight Minyan breaks through the usually nostalgic songs with brassy panache. Not that the record is flamboyant. Aided by bassist Booker King and drummer Tony Lewis, the arrangements possess a hip sophistication.
The layout of the tracks loosely suggests a metaphor for life. "Haftorah Prelude," marked by pianist Brian Mitchell's glossy keys, is traditionally chanted by young Jewish adolescents at their Bar Mitzvah. Borrowing from Louis Prima's arrangement of "To Life (La Chaim)," this track represents the jubilance of life's prime. And Shapiro includes a prayer for the sick towards the end of the disc, with "Lester Young's Misheberakh," an original that offsets smooth sax lines with trumpet laments to a tango beat.
Combining nature (and mathematics) with art, Shapiro ends the album with "Haftorah Postlude." The sextet plays the galloping rhythm in accordance with the Fibonacci Series, where the preceding two numbers combine to form the next - most visually apparent in nature's relics like seashells and pinecones. It's an interesting idea that unfortunately gets annoyingly repetitive.
With six musicians on the album, Shapiro leaves room to join his minyan (ten people gathered together in prayer). Grab a few friends, don your yarmulkes, and have a listen. Just don't get too caught up in the seduction of it all. Remember, this is sacred stuff.
This review originally appeared in All About Jazz-New York June 2003.
Track Listing: Ma Lecha Hayam; Freigish Behavior; Sim Shalom; Amdah Haftorah Prelude; Aitz Chaim He; To Life; Amidah; Lester Young's Misheberakh; Haftorah.
Personnel: Peter Apfelbaum: soprano and tenor saxophone; Tony Lewis: drums; Brian Mitchell: piano; Paul Shapiro: soprano and tenor saxophone; Steven Bernstein: trumpet, slide trumpet.