Black-Jewish Group Chasing The Trane
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Black-Jewish Group Chasing The Trane

Afro-Semitic Experience now flirting with late-’60s free-flowing spiritual jazz pioneered by John Coltrane.

George Robinson covers film and music for The Jewish Week.

This is, quite simply, the sound of joy. Seven musicians playing with great passion, performing 10 tunes by composers they love in a loose-limbed style that runs the gamut from post-bop to klez-jazz to Latin clave to gospel.

“It’s incredible how much fun we have playing this music,” David Chevan admits. Chevan is the bassist and co-founder of the Afro-Semitic Experience and we are talking about the band’s new CD, “Jazz Souls on Fire.” The group will perform music from the album on Jan. 30 as part of a Shabbat Shirah celebration in White Plains.

The Afro-Semitic Experience has always been a source of sustenance for those looking for a different take on the Jewish musical tradition, and recently the band was flirting with the sounds of late-’60s free-flowing spiritual jazz, inspired by the last years of John Coltrane and the mantle he passed to his widow Alice and fellow saxophonist Pharoah Sanders. It’s a sound that involved a lot of wind chimes, long, long solos, group chanting and vaguely African-inspired percussion. The Experience was working in that vein quite fruitfully when last I saw them live.

So the eclectic, wildly humorous approach they take on the new album came as a complete surprise, albeit a delightful one.

“I grew up on that music,” Chevan says. “But I can’t play that the same way they did back then. I can’t let it become a museum piece sitting in a vault somewhere.”

For example, the opening tune on “Jazz Souls” is the Sanders-Leon Thomas classic, “The Creator Has a Master Plan.” The band retains Thomas’ utopian lyrics (and their Left-y sexism, “Peace and happiness for every man…”), but the arrangement flips the song its head with a salsa groove and cheerful mandolin-like chords from Stacy Philips on lap steel guitar.

“For me playing ‘Creator’ brings back alive a feeling that jazz had at that moment,” Chevan says, “But we don’t leave it in a mausoleum.”

Although the band had its origins in Chevan’s duo recordings and performances with pianist Warren Byrd, the Experience has evolved along more collective lines, and that is reflected in the new record.

“Yes, we’re kind of a collective these days,” the bass player acknowledges. “For this project everybody brought some favorite tunes to the table. There were two that I really wanted to do and two that Warren wanted. Some members didn’t feel they wanted to do a specific tune but wanted to do arranging.”

He cites the group’s version of John Coltrane’s “Wise One” as an example of how the album came into being. It is one of the strongest tracks on the CD, a sinuous and muscular exploration in the Coltrane-Sanders vein.

“I talked with Will [Bartlett, the band’s reed player] and said ‘You’re going to come to the table with [the Coltrane tune]’ and he came through with an amazing arrangement,” Chevan says. “He preserved the poetry that went into Coltrane’s original, using figures that are transcriptions of some of ‘Trane’s solo ideas.”

Even so, Chevan adds, “The arranging was just a first draft, a nice process, but as we play the arrangements they’re morphing into other things.”

The Afro-Semitic Experience, as its name implies, was always conceived with a larger, non-musical agenda in mind, a reaction to the constantly shifting black-Jewish alliance in American society, with the idea that a musical dialogue is a good place to start an intellectual dialogue as well.

Sometimes the musical dialogue takes you in a different direction.

Chevan refers to a recent gig at a club in Hamden, Conn., where the band is now playing monthly.

“We came with a list of tunes and we did them, but if someone [in the band] called a tune that wasn’t on the list, we did that,” he says. “It was a jazz gig, but with a particularly specific repertoire. What’s happened is we’re just comfortable, good friends getting together to make music.”

He pauses, laughs, and adds, “That’s roughly a translation of ‘Hinei Ma Tov.’

The larger agenda is never far away. Asked about the upcoming synagogue gig, Chevan says, “Shabbat Shirah — you can only imagine what tunes we could play for this observance. It’s the great nexus for the Afro-Semitic historical experience, a starting point for that conversation, ‘for the waters parted’ and we emerged as a new nation. Exodus is such a central metaphor for both Jewish and African-American history.”

And an excellent reason to make a joyous sound unto the Creator.

The Afro-Semitic Experience will perform Friday, Jan. 30 at Woodlands Community Temple (50 Worthington Rd., White Plains) at 8 p.m. For information, go to www.wct.org or call (914) 592-7070. The band’s new CD “Jazz Souls on Fire” is available on its website, www.afrosemiticexperience.net.

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