The confluence of Jewish-American culture, rhythm and blues, jazz, and food may sound like a terrifying New World cultural collision, but Essen (Yiddish for “eat”) actually goes down like Katz?s pastrami (i.e., like butter). For the past few years, Paul Shapiro, a New York–based saxophonist with serious new-jazz and R&B credentials, has put a postmodern spin on Jewish musical themes, honoring the past yet never forgetting that over-the-top humor and extroverted theatricality (and culinary obsession) are grand elements of the tradition. Essen turns a loving eye on novelty numbers whose melting-pot origins can be traced to such dizzying sources as the music hall icon Sophie Tucker, jazz singer Mildred Bailey (herself of Native American blood), African-American artists Cab Calloway and the team of Slim and Slam; and the legendary Yiddish comedy duo the Barton Brothers. Shapiro and his multiracial Ribs and Brisket Revue go to town on timeless ditties like ?Matzoh Balls,? ?Tzouris,? and ?A Bee Gezindt,? laying on bluesy vocals, jazzy riffs, funky beats, and madcap interjections as if they were applying crucial mustard and sauerkraut on top of that aforementioned pastrami. What makes the album a delight, apart from the delicious absurdity of much of the material (?dunkin bagels — splash in the coffee? indeed!) is the balance of top-notch musicianship (hear, for instance, Cilla Owens?s idiomatic command of both Yiddish and blues inflections on ?Mama Goes where Papa Goes?) and lighthearted sensibility. Essen leaves us, yes, hungry for more.
About the Writer
Steve Futterman writes the "Jazz and Standards" listings for The New Yorker.