Drummer Shelly Manne’s recently reissued "Steps To The Desert" (subtitled ‘Modern Jazz Versions Of Favorite Jewish And Israeli Songs’) is an album both brilliantly conceived and beautifully executed. As the title indicates, Manne has taken traditional Jewish and Israeli tunes and given them the jazz treatment. The essence of the melodies are still present and clearly distinguishable, but this is a hard bop outing through and through, played at the highest level.
For this date, recorded in 1962 and originally issued in 1963, Manne assembled an all-star lineup consisting of Shorty Rogers on flugelhorn and trumpet, Teddy Edwards on tenor sax, Victor Feldman on piano and vibes, Al Viola on guitar, and Monty Budwig on bass. This group brings an enormous amount of jazz history to the studio, having worked with the likes of such greats as Charlie Parker, Stan Kenton, Dizzy Gillespie, Woody Herman, Benny Carter, Max Roach, Cannonball Adderley, Frank Sinatra, Chet Baker and the list goes on. Without a doubt, each of these musicians are legendary figures in their own right, but here they also exhibit a unity that is truly amazing. This is particularly apparent on songs like "Bokrei Lachish". There are many examples of great bands in which the musicians did not, for example, play the heads quite in unison (Miles Davis was well known for this) and yet it was accepted, perhaps under the banner of ‘artistic license’ (could that be what they mean when they say "close enough for jazz?"). However, I appreciate the precision that an ensemble like this is able to achieve. I feel that it shows a special kind of discipline and respect for the art.
Another aspect of this recording that makes it so special is the band’s magical ability to create several different moods and transport the listener to several different places within the same song. Take, for example, the section at the end of "Yossel, Yossel" when everyone except the guitar drops out and just that quickly, in the space of about 8 bars, the entire character of the song radically changes. It sounds simple, but it’s one of those things much easier said than done.
Some of the songs they tackle here ("Hava Nagila", "Tzena", "My Yiddishe Momme") should be familiar even to those without much exposure to Jewish/Israeli music. Others are more obscure. But even on the less common tunes, there is a feeling of familiarity - a feeling that you’ve heard it before somewhere - and yet at the same time they also possess a freshness, due to the fantastic arrangements and the magnificent solos each piece contains.
This is an unusual album - a courageous undertaking in which every song is a gem, played by some of the greatest musicians in the history of jazz. It is a reissue that was well overdue and well worth the wait.