Of the elite jazz musicians working in New York, pianist Bruce Barth is probably the only one who can claim a klezmer pedigree.
Barth, 46, who has emerged as one of his generation’s most compelling pianists and will share the stage Monday at Merkin Hall with the legendary Cedar Walton in a two-piano duet, developed an ear for klezmer in high school in Harrison, N.Y. It was then that his brother introduced him to a clique of New York bluegrass musicians, including mandolinist/clarinetist Andy Statman and banjoist Tony Trischka.
“I later checked out some of Andy’s Jewish music projects like ‘Flatbush Waltz,’ ” Barth told The Jewish Week. “I learned that Andy was from Borough Park and that he was going back to his roots playing Jewish folk music and chasidic melodies from Eastern Europe.”
A few years later, when he was studying at the New England Conservatory in Boston, Barth found a vibrant klezmer scene spearheaded by Hankus Netsky, leader of the acclaimed Klezmer Conservatory Band. “It was in Boston when I really began, through the music, to look into my Jewish identity,” the pianist said. After a stint with the klezmer group Shirim, Barth’s musical sights turned more fully to jazz. “By that time my interest in jazz had grown, but I was drawn to the lyrical, plaintive side of Jewish music, especially the chasidic niggunim,” he said.
Even after he began to make a name for himself on the New York jazz scene, first with rising star trumpeter Terence Blanchard, then leading his own groups, Barth kept a hand in the klez scene. In 1997, he joined Statman, Trischka and violinist Matt Glaser in the Wayfaring Strangers, an experiment in Americana fusing jazz, Appalachian, Celtic and klezmer styles. A year later, Statman called. A giant on the Jewish music scene, he was continuing his search for a new middle ground between a post-John Coltrane, spiritually infused jazz and Jewish music, and chose Barth to appear on “The Hidden Light,” a record full of yearning and quiet intensity with Statman’s takes on “Come, My Beloved (Lecha Dodi),” “Sabbath Peace (Shabbos Menuchah)” and the Modzitzer ballad “Pastoral.”
“It’s a spiritual, meditative record,” Barth said. “There’s a lyricism to it, and an openness. Improvisation is a part of the klezmer tradition, as it is in jazz.”
In his work as a jazz musician, Barth — whose most recent release is “Live at the Village Vanguard” (MaxJazz) — said he doesn’t explicitly draw on Jewish sources, “but what I play is the product of my life experiences, and that includes growing up in a Jewish household where culture was so important. I see music as a transcendent form of expression,” Barth said. “There’s always something a little mysterious about music making. As a jazz musician you spend a lot of time studying craft, but when you’re on the bandstand making music you sense that there’s something at play that’s larger than all of us.”
You probably won’t hear any klezmer licks from Barth in his duet with Cedar Walton. But this being jazz, you never know. “The ‘Avinu Malkenu’ is one of my favorite Jewish melodies from the liturgy,” Barth said. “I’d love to do something with it, use it as the vehicle for improvisation.”
Bruce Barth and Cedar Walton perform Monday, Oct. 25, 8 p.m., at Merkin Hall, 129 W. 67th St., as part of the Jazz Duo-Piano Concerts (Nov. 22: Bill Charlap and Bill Mays; Feb. 14: Kenny Barron and Mulgrew Miller; June 20: Cyrus Chesnut and John Hicks). $35 for single concert; $105 for series. (212) 501-3303.