Jazzing up Shabbat

By Simon Round, October 7, 2010

Back in the mid-1960s Jonathan Klein - then a high school student with a passion for jazz - was approached to compose something for his synagogue. Klein had the novel idea of setting Shabbat prayers to jazz.

The resulting piece, Hear O Israel, went down well- two years later the ripple reached New York where a record company commissioned a recording played by a collection of eminent jazz musicians including piano great Herbie Hancock. In fact, the piece which is finally to be premiered in London next weekend, has been recorded twice – once in 1967 by Hancock, and again in 1993 with a different line-up.

Klein, now associate professor of music at the eminent Berklee College of Music in Boston, recalls thinking that setting prayers to jazz, even if revolutionary at the time, made sense. "Saying the prayers to myself and looking at the English translations it just suggested a certain way of doing it. I though it was quite a neat spiritual experience to have your mind going places you didn't expect it to."

Hear O Israel divided audiences. He explains: "The reaction was either very positive or very negative - there didn't seem to be much in-between. I guess for some people this was hard to understand.

"By the time the piece was performed again in 1994, jazz had become just another branch of classical music - it was no longer perceived as something you'd hear in a nightclub."

Despite the thrill of playing alongside Hancock, Klein much prefers the 1993 recording. "Immediately after the 1967 session I thought it was a disaster. In the 43 years since I have listened to it perhaps five times. But Hancock was great and I edited some of his solos into the 1993 recording."

Klein has contributed to the piece both as composer and player. "I played piano in the original performances and french horn and baritone sax on the 1967 recording. In 1993 I got really smart and didn't play anything at all."

Hear O Israel will be performed by the F-ire Collective at King's Place London, N1 on Saturday October 16. Bookings on 020 7520 1490 or at www.kingsplace.co.uk

Last updated: 11:35am, October 7 2010