The Afro-Semetic Experience may be a mouthful, but the East Coast sextet’s fusion of African American and Jewish sounds, songs and sentiments - as on their 2005 release, Plea for Peace - makes an eloquent statement about respecting differences and celebrating universals.
Such a blend is hardly unprecedented. Just this past weekend Nick Spitzer devoted and installment of his PRI-distributed "American Routes" to "Jews and Blues," which explored some of the cultural connections through the music of such jazzers and Jews as saxophonist Sidney Bechet, R&B producer Jerry Wexler, Bandleader Artie Shaw, Yiddish Diva Belle Baker and guitar giant Grant Green. One of clarinetist Don Byron’s early discs was a tribute to borsht belt klezmer star Mickey Katz. And of course, going all the way back to the roots of jazz, recall that African slaves adopted many of the stories, symbols and songs of Jewish slavery, freedom and exile.
All of which is so much background to the ASE. The group includes few overt klezmer grooves - the hard-jamming "Reb Dovidl’s Nigun," Will Bartlett’s fiery clarinet - but prefers subtler references, as on the ultra-bluesy "Almighty God" (from Duke Ellington’s"Second Sacred Concert").
Equally likely are honking, soulful solos, heartfelt gospel, and old-time revival energy that makes you want to clap. This is laid over fantastic African drum figures, smoldering Cuban rhythms and mellow grooves that suggest quiet introspection.
"Descarga Ocho Kandelikas," for example, chills in a Cuban mode from the start, while flute and violin dance the Hora through the head. "(I’m on My Way to) Canaan Land," on the other hand, is smoking from the first bar, and the chant-like "A Song for When the Temple is Rebuilt" gets downright nasty at times.
An abstract horn line that brings to mind John Coltrane spirituals like "Alabama" or "Dear Lord" introduces both "Thy Will Be Done" (penned by Bartlett) and the gorgeous "May It Be Your Will." The title track, by keyboardist Warren Byrd, brings to mind another spiritual jazzman, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, though that could be the Hilton Ruiz piano licks that introduce the work.
Plea for Peace features thoughtful, impassioned playing all around. Bassist David Chevan is solid throughout, including on several excellent solos. Percussionists Alvin Carter Jr. and Baba David Coleman keep plenty busy. Stacy Phillips adds interesting sonorities on lap steel, violin and resonator guitar. For my money, though, keyboardist Byrd deserves a special spotlight, particularly when he turns to the Fender Rhodes. Something about the quality of the sound he achieves on that instrument brings to mind clinking wine glasses and flatware on china around a big dining table - a sound as ancient, a feel as tribal as any circle of drummers gathered around a fine. What is more universal sitting down for a communal meal?
Often times, Plea for Peace moves in a determined direction, like some sort of solemnity or ceremony. Always it vividly and beautifully underscores the similarities between the African American and Jewish experiences - and, by extension, between all people. Now that’s powerful fusion.