Paul Shapiro: Swinging the Mundane with the Holy

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The music came from something deep in our psyches--melodies that we heard all our lives, melodies that were not heard on the radio, in the tradition that's around for thousands of years. We came with our own authenticity.
Paul ShapiroReed man Paul Shapiro is one of the most resourceful and versatile musicians in the vibrant New York scene. In addition to his work in the jazz world, with Phillip Johnston's Microscopic Septet and forward-thinking improvisers such as Julius Hemphill and Elliot Sharp, Shapiro is a founding member of the international musicians' cooperative, Brooklyn Funk Essentials. He has played and recorded with a wide range of artists, including pop icons such as Michael and Janet Jackson and Mariah Carey, rappers such as Queen Latifah, Jay-Z and Ice-T, and rockers such as Lou Reed, Rufus Wainwright and David Byrne and Brian Eno. Shapiro also writes scores for film and theater, where he is best known for his soundtrack to Cheryl Dunye's film, The Watermelon Woman (1996).

All About Jazz: Can you tell us how a nice Jewish boy like yourself can play the funk so well?

Paul Shapiro: [laughs] Ask Queen Latifah; ask Jay-Z! It's natural to me. I've always loved R & B and funk and I grew up listening to it. I understand it. Who cares what color you are? We all grew up in the '60s and the '70s, listening to pop radio with tons of Motown, James Brown, funk. We grew up with "My Girl." People all over the world think of that song as the music of their youth. I love to play R&B and swing it, with a back beat like rock n' roll, but with a hard swing beat—a fun beat to play. Jazz that does not take itself too seriously.

AAJ: Can anyone make a living at all as a musician in New York?

PS: I've been doing it for more than twenty years now, so I know how to do it. It's not easy and it's getting harder. Every time that we turn around there is another form of technology that takes our work away from us. Studio work disappears because there is one guy sitting in a home studio with a midi. Private parties go to DJs. Restaurants don't need us anymore and they use electronic devices instead. But those of us who love what we do stay around and keep diversifying, doing different things to stay on top.

AAJ: Is your main job working as a professional session man?

PS: It's one of the things that I do. My main thing is my own music and my own band. But no one can make a living anymore out of sessions. Too many records are made now just by machines.

AAJ: Your third album as a leader, Essen (2008), was released on John Zorn's Tzadik label as part of the Radical Jewish Culture series. Essen, which means "food" in Yiddish, is the third part in your ongoing exploration of swinging bebop combined with Jewish and post-klezmer themes and Yiddish songs. Could you tell us how this project came about?

Paul ShapiroPS: It started when I played in Steven Bernstein's Diaspora Soul (1999), also for Tzadik. Steven and I go back to the '80s together. We played together a lot and he invited me into his band. Then John Zorn invited me to play on Daniel Zamir's Children of Israel (Tzadik, 2002)—I've known Zorn since we were in our twenties. It is funny to say it, but that was before he became famous. We talked about doing my own record. At that time, I was listening to a lot of Jewish music, so I came up with the concept of Midnight Minyan (Tzadik, 2003), an homage to Saturday morning liturgical melodies. He enjoyed it, and off we went.

I feel very indebted to Zorn for giving to many of us an opportunity to think about our heritage. Previous to Zorn, I was not thinking about doing a Jewish music record. I played Jewish music here and there, at weddings and with klezmer bands. But Zorn—by creating the label Tzadik and having the idea of making music with Jewish roots and ideas—helped us all a lot. When you make music that has some roots in it, perhaps something that is deep inside yourself that excites yourself, good music comes out. I think that we all made some very interesting music because it came from something deep in our psyches—melodies that we heard all our lives, melodies that were not heard on the radio, in the tradition that's around for thousands of years. We came with our own authenticity.

I used themes of Jewish prayers that I remembered as a child going to synagogues and preparing for my Bar Mitzvah, and arranged them as lounge-y, old-school jazz songs. On one of the songs, "Sim Shalom" (which means "grant us peace" in Hebrew), I used Peter Apfelbaum on soprano sax, together with my soprano sax and Bernstein's slide trumpet, to venture into a Middle-Eastern quarter-tone experience that links the three voices of the Judeo-Christian and Muslim.

But playing that kind of music does not mean that I'm just a bebopper. I'm not trying to be nostalgic. I heard other kinds of music all around me since I was born and from then on. I grew up in the sixties and seventies and I heard a lot of funk, R & B that I loved, King Curtis, Sam "The Man" Taylor, Junior Walker, the honky-tonk saxophonists and, of course, jazz players such Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Yusef Lateef, David "Fathead" Newman. I studied jazz. It's always been, for me, part jazz and part R & B because, being someone who grew up in these times, I was always aware of the pop music around me and always interested in combining what I love in jazz with contemporary rhythms of today. I love all the traditions of the saxophone. All of it is a reflection in my own musical world.

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