Celebrations, the Heritage Ensemble's second album following Making The Music Our Own (MEII Enterprises, 2006), is subtitled Eugene Marlow's Heritage Ensemble Interprets Festive Melodies From The Hebraic Songbook. The review copy arrived with a polite but serious covering letter rather than the usual hyperbolic press release. The album's closing track is a lecture by bandleader and keyboardist Marlow on "The Heritage Ensemble: its history, repertoire and philosophy." Not a typical jazz recording, then. A preservation project for musicologists, not fans? An academic treatise aiming to educate rather than entertain? Possibly.
But then the music startsand from the first of Marlow's chunky, low-down, piano chords on "Chanukah O Chanukah" it's clear that this is an album of joyous music from a tight and talented band. Marlow gives the Hebraic tunes, mostly associated with the festivals of Chanukah or Purim, some delightfully inventive arrangements that bring the melodies firmly into jazz, rather than simply adding some jazz touches to the traditional melodies; swing, bop, Afro-Cuban and other styles bring real variety to the table.
"Sevivon," a Chanukah melody, really swings: Michael Hashim
's soprano sax takes the lead, with a distinctly middle-eastern flavor, while Frank Wagner's acoustic bass solo stays close to the melody but gives it a full, rounded and rich sound. "Mishenichnas Adar Marbim Be-Simeha" begins in a more traditional style, with Hashim's soprano sax handling the melody, before extending into a hard-bop inspired arrangement on which Maslow plays a dexterous, sparkling, piano solo. Wagner also contributes a lovely acoustic bass solo to "Moaz Tsur," which Marlow arranges as a slow, straight-ahead, ballad. "Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel" is a slinky, danceable, number. Hashim's alto solo is sharply performed and his interplay with Maslow's piano is fun.
Marlow's original, "Yotvata," is beautiful. Unusually, the recording is taken from two separate performances: the opening and closing sections are played by the Lebanese classical pianist Nada Loutfi, while the mid-section is an improvisation by the Ensemble, with Marlow and Hashim both creating lyrical and reflective solos.
Much of the credit for the sheer joy this album evokes must go to the percussion players. Grammy-nominated Bobby Sanabria
is outstanding, his drumming totally in tune with the melodies and crucial to their immediacy and groove. Cristian Rivera adds color and tone with his percussion, a perfect complement to Sanabria's drums. "Layehudim Haitah Orah Ve-Simehah Ve-Sasson Ve-Yakar," from the festival of Purim, features one of their most insistent and groove-laden percussion breaks, but almost every tune on the album is enhanced by these stylish players.
The Heritage Ensemble is a group with a serious musical purpose, but it's also a group that understands how a serious musical purpose can be achieved most effectively by creating entertaining music. Celebrations most definitely entertains.
Track Listing: Chanukah, O Chanukah; Moaz Tsur; Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel; Halleluyah; Layehudim Haitah Orah Ve-Simehah Ve-Sasson Ve-Yakar; Yotvata; Sevivon; Mishenichnas Adar Marbim Be-Simeha; The Heritage Ensemble: Its History, Repertoire and Philosophy.
Personnel: Eugene Marlow: keyboards; Michael Hashim: alto and soprano saxophones; Frank Wagner: acoustic bass, electric bass; Bobby Sanabria: drums; Cristian Rivera: percussion; Nada Loutfi: piano (6).