Surrounded by dustily stocked bookshelves, antique lamps and floral artistic screens, a jazz saxophonist jammed along with his ensemble for a small crowd that straggled in and out of a dimly lit East Village basement this past Monday night.
No, this wasn’t your ordinary subterranean jazz haunt.
Suddenly, the sax player paused his band between sets to relate the piece they had just finished to Vayishlach, the Torah portion of the week, where Jacob confronts Esau and speaks to him about his evil stepfather Laban.
Rabbi Greg Wall, a noted saxophonist working at the intersection of jazz and Jewish music, was just installed as the new spiritual leader of the Sixth Street Community Synagogue, what he is now calling the “Wailing Wall of Sixth Street.” And the basement gig was the launch of his “Jazz Rabbi’s Monday Night Invitational,” part of his effort to transform the synagogue into an arts haven.
Rocking back and forth with his tenor and soprano saxophones as if he were davening, the rabbi joined pianist Shai Bachar, drummer Aaron Alexander and bassist Dave Richards as they played songs from John Zorn’s Tzadik label as well as new material from their upcoming CD. The new concert series is just one of many events in a wave of musical innovation that Rabbi Wall is bringing to the traditionally Orthodox synagogue that has always been steeped in arts and culture.
“I’m trying to come up with programming that will appeal to the East Village demographic,” said the rabbi, who is hoping to please older congregants while bringing in the neighborhood’s youth. “We have a full schedule coming up.”
Before becoming a pulpit rabbi in 2006, Rabbi Wall was already a noted composer and performer in the area, and he continues to play professionally and release albums — most recently, “HA’OROT: The Lights of Rav Kook” (May 2009, Tzadik). Having performed regularly downtown for years in venues like the Knitting Factory, the rabbi feels very much at home in his new shul location.
“I’m doing very well in the Village because I’ve been playing music there for the past 25 years,” he said. “People are coming to check me out.”
While the crowd was small for the opening of the Monday Night Invitational, Rabbi Wall is confident that he’ll draw more patrons in the coming weeks. Last month, he hosted a full house in honor of his 50th birthday and rabbinic installation, where he and his band performed, along with Rabbi Simon Jacobson of the adjacent Meaningful Life Center. Sixth Street Synagogue will host the band Sway Machinery on Dec. 12, followed by a Radical Jewish Culture Festival on Dec. 24, and then a musical Rosh Chodesh Shacharit service on Feb. 14.
“Since we’re an Orthodox shul we can’t do that on Shabbat, but Rosh Chodesh we’re gonna go to town,” Rabbi Wall said.
Hiring a jazz musician-turned-rabbi generated some doubt among board members at first, but ultimately, they made the decision to do it.
“I was skeptical at first,” said David Landis, the temple president. “If he’s playing jazz all night, is he going to want to come to minyan at 6:30 a.m.?”
The answer was yes.
“He has so much energy,” Landis marveled.
Older congregants agreed, like Ely Moizman, who said he particularly enjoys the rabbi’s fresh take on older Yiddish tunes, which make events livelier.
“I like his presentation of Judaism because it’s not very confrontational; it’s very compassionate and knowing,” said Moizman, a synagogue trustee and member for the past 12 years.
Rabbi Wall finds the older members to be very supportive of his innovation because, after all, they too live in the East Village, he said. Yet he continues to reach out to young singles and small families, whom he hopes will join members at both events in increasing numbers.
“The 20- and 30-somethings who are single tend to be a nice block when we do a Friday night event,” Rabbi Wall said. “I’ve been asked to start later on Saturday. I’d like to start at 10:15. I think we’d be getting a different demographic.”
More young people have started showing up for Shabbat services and monthly Shabbat dinners, according to Landis, something that he attributes to the new rabbi’s magnetic personality.
“Maybe they’ll come for the music, but they’ll stay for the rabbi,” he said.
“Jazz Rabbi’s Monday Night Invitational” takes place weekly at 9 p.m., at the Max D. Raiskin Center for the Arts at the Sixth Street Community Synagogue, at 325 E. Sixth St. Tickets are $10 and available at the door.www.eastvillageshul.com.