Paul Shapiro: Swinging the Mundane with the Holy

Eyal Hareuveni By

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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.

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.

AAJ: You keep your own band on all your projects; that's a rare thing these days.

PS: I love them. They are just amazing. I am the only guy who uses them together. We have a lot of fun together. Lewis is such a great musician, with a wonderful feel of the music—whatever music he's playing. We are now performing my music to His People, and there are some boxing scenes there and he's improvising on of top of the boxing moves. He's brilliant. King is a sensational bassist—really strong. He's very creative, always keeping the music moving forward. Brian Mitchell never plays jazz cliches. He comes up with incredible things. I love people with original voices.

Selected Discography

Paul Shapiro, Essen (Tzadik, 2008)

Paul Shapiro, It's In The Twilight (Tzadik, 2006)

Paul Shapiro, Midnight Minyan (Tzadik, 2003)

So Called, The So Called Seder: A Hip Hop Haggadah (J Dub, 2005)

Lou Reed, The Raven (Sire, 2003)

Lou Reed, Ecstasy (Warner, 2000)

Daniel Zamir, Children of Israel (Tzadik, 2002)

Phillip Johnston, Normalology (Koch, 2001)

Phillip Johnston, Music For Films (Tzadik, 1998)

Brooklyn Funk Essentials, Make 'Em Like It (Shanachie, 2000)

Brooklyn Funk Essentials, In the Buzz Bag (Doublemoon, 1998)

Brooklyn Funk Essentials, Cool and Steady and Easy (Groovetown, 1995)

Steven Bernstein, Diaspora Soul (Tzadik, 1999)

John Zorn, John Zorn's Cobra: Live At The Knitting Factory (Knitting Factory, 1995)

Queen Latifah, Come into My House (Tommy Boy, 1993)

Queen Latifah, Nature of a Sista (Tommy Boy, 1991)

The Microscopic Septet, Beauty Based On Science (Vintage Jazz, 1988)

The Microscopic Septet, Off Beat Glory (Osmosis, 1987)

Photo Credits

Top Photo: Courtesy of Paul Shapiro

Bottom Photo: S.M. Levy

Featured Story Photo: Woody Ford

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