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Interviews

Paul Shapiro: Swinging the Mundane with the Holy

By Published: September 23, 2008
AAJ: Your original song, "Lester Young's Misheberakh," is very moving. Was Young an influence on your fat sax sound?



PS: Lester Young has a very special place in my heart. He is one of my all-time favorite musicians. I love his tone and what he did with melody, but choosing one guy never worked for me. I love Kirk; he's brilliant. I love Pharoah Sanders; I adore him. Same about Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Dewey Redman. They all have their own voice. But it's not that I wanted to emulate the sound of any of them. They have their own originality and individuality. This is their big influence on me—to make me find my own voice.



AAJ: But the era of '50s bebop certainly defined your sax playing.



PS: I think so, but I love all traditions of the saxophone. I played in the Microscopic Sextet, and there we played music of the '30s and the '40s and then we played a whole section of free music.



AAJ: Has the Midnight Minyan band found success after the release of the disc?



PS: Yes, we performed in the Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow in Poland and in many American cities—sometimes in Jewish community centers and sometimes in clubs or regular places. The band has a crossover appeal. It has a Jewish flavor and sonorities. Sometime people hear it as world-beat jazz—something with a different flavor. The people are really enjoying it. It brings new sounds. People today are searching for things from all over the globe, not just going for the jazz of 1947 New York.



AAJ: How did you go from the arrangement of Jewish prayers in Midnight Minyan to your originals in the following disc, It's In The Twilight (Tzadik, 2006)?



Paul ShapiroPS: Zorn liked my original songs in Midnight Minyan, especially "Lester Young Misheberakh," and he encouraged me to do more originals. Midnight Minyan was much more about Saturday morning Sabbath prayers and It's In The Twilight has more of the Friday evening Kaballat Sabbath—the changing of the lights when the Sabbath begins. In that time of the changing of the lights, you see the majesty, the ineffability of nature—the time when magical stuff happens.



AAJ: Going from the Sabbath services to Yiddish and jazz songs obsessed with food on Essen it was quite natural, then?



PS: Around the time when I did Midnight Minyan, I had the opportunity to do a monthly gig in Cornelia Street Cafe in Manhattan and I decided to do something fun with my band, calling it the Ribs & Brisket Revue. It had to do with a crossover of Yiddish classics popularized by Sophie Tucker, and jazz: '40s swing, songs originally recorded by Cab Calloway and Slim Gaillard. I got into the food thing because so many of these tunes were written about food. I presented it to Zorn and he agreed.



AAJ: Your humor that is reflected in all your three releases as a leader is much more stressed here.



PS: It is a legitimate strain. In Yiddish and in jazz, it's not completely jovial—it has some serious stuff in it. Dizzy Gillespie was great with funny stuff, but also serious at the same time. I like humorous stuff and like to have a full range of emotions. We humans—we laugh and we cry.



AAJ: Your core band—Brian Mitchell on piano, Booker King on bass and Tony Lewis on drums—was augmented on Essen by two amazing vocalists: Cilla Owens and the eccentric and sometimes manic vocalist Babi Floyd. His renditions of Cab Calloway's homage to cantorial music and his obscene use of Yinglish make you laugh every time he opens his mouth. How did you find him?



PS: He's amazing. I've known him since the early '80s. He is a friend of mine and we started to play twelve years ago. He's got an amazing list of people he has played with—the Stones, Keith Richards' Band, James Brown, James Taylor, Billy Joel. I called him, and since we would have only one night at the Cornelia Street Cafe I put him with Cilla Owens on the same night. Holy cow, it was just great, and off we went.



AAJ: Can you tell us more about your score to the film, His People? Will it be your next Tzadik project?



Paul ShapiroPS: In 2004, I was commissioned by the Museum of Jewish Heritage to create a brand new score. It is a wonderful silent film—a Jewish boxing classic, made in 1925 by director Edward Sloman. It's a very entertaining film with plenty of humor. My score is for a six piece ensemble—my band, plus Steven Bernstein on trumpet and Thomas Ulrich on cello. It sounds like "pre-1955" Yiddish swing of the '40s and '50s and post-klezmer. It could be the next thing that I'm involved in—maybe as a Tzadik project, but I haven't spoke with John yet, maybe with the National Center for Jewish film at the Brandeis University. We performed it in several Jewish film festivals. It's one of the most amazing things that I've done—ninety minutes of music that's very organized but with lots of improvisation—very challenging stuff. I'm very happy to do it.



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