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Jazzy Jewish Jamming John Zorn At The Bridge Shul

I recognized him as the Fiddler immediately. Sure, he sat cross-legged on the floor (not the roof) with his back to the audience. He’d discarded the shtetl garb for bright yellow camouflage pants, a highlighter orange shirt and Phalo purple socks. His head was bare, and his tzitzis strings trailed behind him. But John Zorn didn’t fool me; I knew he had leapt straight out of a Shalom Aleichem story. Alas, he neither fiddled nor played his saxophone, he neither danced nor spoke much at all, but he did trek out to the Washington Heights Bridge Shul with the Masada String Trio – Mark Feldman (violin), Erik Friedlander (cello) and Greg Cohen (bass) – and he conducted up a storm.

He nodded in time to their music, he raised his arms and he pinched invisible threads. They shook and swayed, plucked and played. He shushed them for solos, encouraged them for duets and high-fived them after scores. He pointed and whispered, winked and spread his arms wide. Most importantly, he knew when to keep quiet and to let his trio play. John Zorn is a touchy-feely conductor, and it suits him immensely.

Born in New York City in 1953, Zorn studied saxophone at Webster College in St. Louis in the early 70’s. He is trained in classical composition, and he has gained a tremendous reputation for himself in the jazz world. His work, which draws from cartoon soundtracks, employs a unique sound – one that plays with rate, often disorienting the listener as it oscillates between fast-paced melodic traffic and slower and softer tones. The Masada Trio employs a combination of classical and Eastern music, Klezmer and jazz to brew an auditory blend that feels entirely distinct.


The conversation between Zorn and the Trio was “give-and-take,” a chavrusah of sorts. It proved an experimental chavrusah, to be sure, with a lot of pizzicato – plucking the instrument’s strings rather than playing with a bow – and squeaking, due to playing very close to the instruments’ bridges. The Trio plays with and against their instruments, creating both classical and surprisingly new sounds.

The Trio’s songs feature titles like Kochot, Kedushah and Ruach (Zorn admitted that the song ‘Moshav’ featured ‘a dubious title, whatever that means’) and the music label that serves as an umbrella for all of the Trio’s music is Tzadik, founded in 1995.

According to its site, “Tzadik is dedicated to releasing the best in avant garde and experimental music, presenting a worldwide community of contemporary musician-composers who find it difficult or impossible to release their music through more conventional channels.” The label covers many prominent Jewish musicians, including Basya Schechter, of “Pharaoh’s Daughter.” Tzadik’s recent releases include Schechter’s new CD, as well as CDs by Raz Mesinai and Christopher Adler.

It proves excessively difficult to pinpoint exactly what feels so Jewish about Zorn. I don’t say this to be cute. Surely the tzitzis and the sound of the music suggest Jewish content. The venue further underscores that aura. Rabbi Ellis Bloch, the rabbi of the Bridge Shul, told me that the congregation originally attracted many congregants involved in the arts, in part due to president, Aaron Bulman’s influence. With a poet-president, the shul sought to showcase Jewish, but not necessarily Orthodox art. Bloch sees difficult hurdles for Jewish artists who create art that is more secular in nature, rather than producing very Jewish art forms, which the Jewish community prefers. And yet, this should not discourage the artist who prefers secular forms: “G-d gives you a lot of talents,” he says “and they can all be part of a Jewish community.”

Bloch said that the Bridge Shul requires that its performers and exhibitors “remain within the lines.” Stressing that it is an Orthodox shul, he cited the Mima’amakim: Journal of Artistic Exploration of the Jewish Religious Experience as an example. Mima’amakim often hosts poetry reads and musical performances, and its site, www.mimaamakim.org features online forums on poetry and prose. The Bridge Shul originally gave Mima’amakim its first stage, but as the journal began to broaden its content and artist base, Bloch felt that the journal and synagogue had to part ways.

If the venue was Orthodox, the audience was very diverse. I saw pointed side burns, horn rimmed glasses, bald heads, white hair, tichels, a wide assortment of kippa variations and even some young children dispersed throughout the crowd. And yet, something about the music – beyond all these literal factors – drew them all in.

With Rosh Hashanah quickly approaching, I had the shofar on my mind, and it struck me that the Trio’s plucking suggested a Teruah sound, while much of the bow-work mimicked a Shevarim. Raw and shrill, the songs penetrated much like the shofar does. In this way, Zorn managed to abandon text – the most popular tool that Jewish bands rally to lend their music a ‘Jewish’ feel – and yet to maintain a Jewish feel to his music. His conducting style all but employs a Talmudic strategy of explicative exchange, and his sounds feel personal and deep, much like the siren sound of the shofar. John Zorn’s non-textual language achieves a coherence that really sings unto the L-rd a new song.

Menachem Wecker edits the Arts and Culture Section of the Yeshiva University Commentator. As an artist, he has trained at the Massachusetts College of Art. Menachem may be contacted at: mwecker@gmail.com.

The Bridge Shul
Pinehurst and West 179th Street (Washington Heights)
For more information, visit http://www.suddenvision.com/bridgeshul 

For more information on Tzadik, visit http://www.tzadik.com 

About the Author: Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.

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