Klezmer and jazz meet in a new album

Growing up, I heard only a few Yiddish phrases, and maybe some choice curses, from my mother and grandmother – interjected into conversations. Then there’s jazz. Jazz has been in my life from a very young age. I discovered the jazz vocal group The Manhattan Transfer and their forerunners Lambert Hendriks and Ross in my early teens and then broadened my listening experiences. Imagine my excitement to learn that Janis Siegel, one of the Manhattan Transfer founders, partnered with Grammy-nominated jazz pianist John Di Martino and jazz-loving cantor Daniel Kramer to create a new release that marries the beauty of the Yiddish language with the versatility and excitement of jazz music.

MAZEL the album is the result of this collaboration, and it does not disappoint. For Yiddish lovers there is the familiarity and nostalgia of the mamaloshen and for jazz lovers there is beautiful and imaginative music being made.

Siegel’s powerful vocals and composing and arranging talent are heralded in the jazz world. Collaborating with Di Martino in New York, it was John – the one non-Jewish musician on this CD – who suggested a completely Yiddish-themed project.

“I have always been drawn to exploring language, culture, and music from around the world,” Di Martino said. “My interest in Yiddish songs began with hearing Alberta Hunter sing “Ich Hob Dich Tzufil Lieb.“ When I moved to New York in 1988 my first apartment was in Flatbush/Brooklyn. I was deepening my knowledge of Ashkenazi culture by reading Isaac Bashevis Singer and taking walks to Brighton Beach. I began to research Yiddish songbooks and discovered the song ‘Glick.’ The idea for the MAZEL project began with this song.

“I introduced Janis to it and she added prose narration she had written about her grandparents (My Grandfather’s House). We created a cabaret piece with these elements and then performed at the North Shore Jewish Center on Long Island. Cantor Daniel Kramer joined us on this segment. I mentioned to the cantor my long-held desire to do an all-Yiddish recording project… and this project was born!”

While Di Martino had had been thinking about doing a CD of Yiddish songs for a long time and had previously approached other collaborators, it never panned out. “Somehow destiny was at play and all the resources came together: the interest, the gathering of the talent, and the funding! I think it was important to have Jewish collaborators. Something about growing up eating latkes emerges to give character to the music!” Di Martino said.

Several members of The Manhattan Transfer are Jewish and have recorded in Yiddish before, but an entire album in Yiddish was not under consideration, Siegel said. “The Transfer actually were part of a collaborative Jewish Songbook produced by the great Brooks Arthur along with Barbara Streisand, Neil Sedaka, Adam Sandler, Lainie Kazan and Triumph the Insult Comedy Dog,” she said. “We sang a tune called ‘Utt Du Zay.‘ Incidentally though, I was in no way remotely thinking of doing a Yiddish record, but John and Daniel were that persuasive,” she said.

Kramer was also a life-long Manhattan Transfer fan. When looking for performing artists to invite to his synagogue, he reached out to Siegel’s agent. He also wondered about joining the musicians on a track or two. “I was surprised and delighted that Janis agreed. They sent me the tune (“Glick”), and I was floored when Janis asked for a rehearsal at her place two days prior to the show. Total lump-in-throat kind of experience. Certainly, I did not see anything further coming of it, but I was fine with that. It wasn’t until after I spoke with John that I realized there might be more to come.”

This was Kramer’s first music recording experience. “I had a jazz quartet with a backing band in college, and we toyed with the idea of recording, but it just never happened. I do have some unique liturgy arrangements from the 1940s which I use during certain services throughout the year. I’ve thought of recording some, and still might. However, being part of a project like this was, honestly, not on my radar.”

The CD is an interesting blend of English and Yiddish lyrics, mixed with jazz, klezmer, and Latin influences. There are familiar favourites and more obscure but no less beautiful selections. “We each suggested different pieces,” explained Siegel. “Daniel really knew a lot more about the traditional tunes. I definitely wanted to do ‘Glick,’ ‘My Yiddishe Momme‘ and some kind of swing piece. I also brought ‘Mazel’ to the table.” “We did a lot of listening over our first several meetings,” Kramer said. Di Martino brought in the instrumentals. “Janis and I both have worked with most of the musicians featured on the CD, including notable guests like Kevin Osborne and Aubrey Johnson. We knew they would help us make the project great.

”None of the collaborators are Yiddish speakers, yet they perform the language with ease on the tracks. “I found it to be fun and quick to learn, because it was more Germanic than a romance language with a difficult accent,” said Siegel. “I grew up hearing Yiddish phrases, both by my family and in daily New York life. The language and music had a kind of earthiness that appealed… and also the Yiddish music was integrated deeply into much of the popular music of the time. Many jazz musicians were influenced by and/or interpreted Yiddish songs. Singing this style of music was emotional for me… maybe because of all the resonance and memory.”

Kramer had studied Yiddish in college, enabling him to read the music and lyrics with ease, but he had a native Yiddish-speaking congregant triple-check everything. “Also, given that we were paying homage to different folks along the way, we changed dialects throughout the album to give those nods. That was a little more challenging,” he said.

Released in December 2020, response to the album has been excellent and wide-ranging. “It’s been a combination of Jewish/Yiddish culture fans and jazz/Latin fans. We’ve had a bunch of radio interest, mostly from Jewish/Yiddish programs around the globe, but also from some jazz/Latin programs, even right here in NYC,” Kramer said.

Whether or not you understand the language, if you are a jazz lover or appreciate beautifully composed and executed music, you will find much to enjoy here. Listen to clips and buy it at: https://mazelthealbum.com/.

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