From Louisiana Cultural
By Ben Sandmel
Religious faith as a balm for [such] angst forms the core of Neil Blumofe’s
Piety and Desire (Horeb). By profession, Blumofe is a chazzan, a Hebrew
word for which the English translation is a cantor. He is a singer and
interpreter of Jewish liturgical music who works with a rabbi conducting
services, in this case at a synagogue in Austin.
By avocation Blumofe is an avant-garde jazz singer who has recorded two
albums of liturgical music in New Orleans accompanied by such excellent
modern jazz musicians as Maurice Brown, Jason Marsalis, Roland Guerin,
and Matt Perine, along with a core of fine players form Austin.
The merger of these two genres does not represent as broad a stylistic
leap as it may imply. Cantorial music is traditionally sung a capella
and thus allows for embellishment, ornamentation and improvisation, all
inspired by the flow of emption. This somewhat fluid approach must stay
within a certain appropriate religious aesthetic, but it still allows
considerable latitude for invention.
In his extensive liner notes, Blumofe describes Piety and Desire as “….music
for a wedding. This is music that bestirs love and examines choice….In
the telling of this wedding, we do not present a transfiguration, celebrating
the ephemeral and triumphing only the spirit….We play rather, in
the realm of the real, honoring doubts, unconcealing misgivings, archiving
inevitable advice and preparing for the rapture of a honeymoon. We are
intense with the fever of sex and the creditors of the morning after.”
The music on Piety and Desire is similarly abstruse; this is not the jazz
of regular rhythms and embellished melodies that typically denotes the
New Orleans sound, and which has obvious connections with the secular
Eastern European Jewish genre known as klezmer.
That aesthetic is certainly referenced on Piety and Desire, but not in
terms of its familiar structure. That concept must be temporarily suspended
here, much as one would do when approaching the avant-garde work of Ornette
Coleman. The adjustment is well worthwhile for such rich, eloquent and
challenging music. Regular readers can think of it as the omega to the
alpha of Washington Phillips, the gospel singer who was featured in this
column in the previous issue.
Ben Sandmel is a New Orleans based freelance writer and folklorist
Louisiana Cultural Vistas - http://www.leh.org/LCV/lcv.htm
Piety and Desire’ — a joyous, jazzy wedding romp through N’awlins
by Suzanne Weiss, correspondent
Jewish News Weekly of Northern California
“Piety and Desire” — the recipe for a
Jewish wedding, or a couple of parallel streets in New Orleans?
Actually, right on both counts, if one is referring to Cantor Neil F.
Blumofe’s new CD, which celebrates both the wedding ceremony and
the spirit of New Orleans rising from the ravages of hurricane.
Quite a mix, but chazzan Blumofe seems to be quite a guy.
A graduate of Tulane University with close ties to the Crescent City,
he is a composer and jazz singer as well as religious leader in Austin,
Texas. He has put together this remarkable album, with a little help from
his friends — who happen to include a number of topnotch jazz men,
including Jason Marsalis, the youngest branch on the musical Marsalis
It begins with, of all things, a slow rendition of the Wedding March from
Wagner’s “Lohengrin,” played in a slow, muted trumpet
Soon this melody becomes deconstructed — perhaps paralleling the
musicians’ intent to deconstruct Wagner’s anti-Semitic message
— into the mode of synagogue confession.
Against a sexy, sad, jazzy clarinet solo with Mideastern overtones, the
bridegroom chants a Vidui — a confession not unlike the one used
on Yom Kippur. Blumofe, who composed the music for this recording, also
is the vocalist — except at the very end when, after the glass is
broken, the entire ensemble shouts “Mazel tov!”
As the ceremony moves on, we are not yet free of sad historical reference.
A theme from Haydn’s “String Quartet in C Major” that
is chillingly recognizable as the Nazi anthem “Deutschland, Deutschland
uber Alles,” is intermingled with a Polish wedding song “Tants,
Tants, Tants” (Dance, Dance, Dance) from the Vilna ghetto.
Blumofe points out in his liner notes that famed 19th-century Cantor Salomon
Sulzer used Haydn’s theme in his own composed wedding music in an
attempt to share the greater cultural milieu. That it turned into a reminder
of horror simply enriches the experience. The bride and groom are aware
that life can turn around in an instant and yet, in a supreme act of confidence,
resolve to face whatever comes, hand in hand.
The next section brings us under the canopy with a beautiful Hebrew chant,
accompanied only by a few piano chords. Then comes the processional, a
traditional klezmer tune that accelerates with each of the seven circles
the bride makes around her groom. A Sephardic melody, “Ladder of
Gold,” accompanies the ascent to the chuppah. This is followed by
a beautiful cantorial chant, the bridegroom asking to be granted true
and meaningful speech within the relationship. Then comes “Betrothal
Chant” with a jazz background.
“High Fidelity,” the next track, is a joyous jam session sparked
by tuba, high-pitched whistle and wild percussion. The inference is that
a marriage may be planned but the future is improvised.
The longest track — 18-plus minutes — “Seven Blessings
in the Garden District,” caps the ceremony. There is a definite
touch of Coltrane here, with bass, violin, cello and vibes solos introducing
and accompanying the cantor’s voice. Blumofe’s melody creates
a spiritual space.
The fifth blessing is a mournful dirge reminding us that we are, after
all, in New Orleans — “Let the barren city be jubilantly happy
and joyful at her joyous reunion with her children …”
The final blessing is like a march, with percussion in the background.
The klezmer influence enters again, mingling with a Sephardic rhythm.
As it gains power you almost can see a parade winding down Bourbon Street.
But the celebration is not yet ready to spill out of the synagogue. First
you must have the Priestly Blessing: Marsalis’ powerful vibes solo
leads into the traditional melody, played in counterpoint by the winds
and piano as the cantor’s voice soars above. In the background,
the bass imitates the ticking of a clock: Time will pass, things will
change and who can predict the outcome?
To the tune of “Playpen Stomp,” the glass is broken, the lovers
kiss and disappear for private time. A Turkish mode known as fasil, complete
with oud solo, mingles with a couple of American folksongs, to usher in
the public celebration.
You can write and write about this kind of music, a melding of ancient
liturgy and contemporary jazz, but you really have to experience it aurally
to understand its power. The musicians — Maurice Brown, Derek Douget,
Alex Coke, Ben Saffer, Roland Guerin, Matt Perrine, Fred Sanders, Mark
Rubin and Steven Greenman, in addition to Marsalis and Blumofe himself
— are highly accomplished, the music is exciting and, if one could
reproduce it at one’s own wedding, it would be a true blessing.
If not, listening to it could just make you fall in love all over again.
The Cleveland Jewish News
By Alan Smason
In his latest release, “Piety and Desire” on
Horeb Records, cantor Neil Blumofe incorporates Jewish liturgy with jazz
The title is an obvious homage to two aptly-named New Orleans streets
that relate to Jewish betrothal and marriage
Blumofe recorded these tracks in the fall of 2004 and in March of 2005
with some of the brightest Young Turks on the pre-Katrina New Orleans
jazz scene. They include drummer Jason Marsalis of the famous first family
of jazz there and bassist Roland Guerin.
Cleveland listeners will be delighted to learn that local luminary violinist
Steven Greenman plays throughout Blumofe’s recording, adding authentic
Jewish expressionism to the work.
My favorite pieces are those in which Blumofe seems to inject a measured
approach of his chazanut with the uptempo and carefree approach of the
jazz musicians. There is much to be appreciated here aside from modern
jazz including klezmer, classical and New Orleans street parade elements.
The entire project is extremely well-researched and focused on its message,
which is how to create a Jewish family unit from two individuals pledging
their troth under a canopy of love and commitment.
There is a richness in melody and expressiveness that the exceptional
musicians exhibit along with Blumofe’s talented vocals. This was
evident in Blumofe’s previous release, “Moses’s Muses,”
in which he recounted the story of the biblical figure’s life in
“Piety and Desire” will continue to generate great praise
for Blumofe and the talented ensemble with whom he has chosen to keep
PIETY AND DESIRE (Horeb 2) features music
for a wedding, composed by singer NEIL BLUMOFE (Fast Confession/ Revolutions/
In the Tent of Meeting/ High Fidelity/ Seven Blessings in the Garden District/
Euphrosyne, Aglaia and Thalia/ Playpen Stomp. 66:07), and containing elements
of mainstream Jazz along with traditional Jewish litur- gical formulae.
Like his previous release (3/05, p.28), Blumofe’s current project
provides numerous solo opportunities for Jason Marsalis, Alex Coke, and
Maurice Brown in swinging situations that appeal to a broad Jazz audience.
The singer chants solemnly and delivers sacred verses with passion. On
“High Fidelity,” he introduces a traditional New Orleans street
band to his program, integrating their casual celebration with his own
cantorial prayers. The band (Blumofe, vcl; Jason Marsalis, d, vib, whistle;
Maurice Brown, tpt; Derek Douget, ss, as, ts; Alex Coke, flt, b flt, ts;
Ben Saffer, cl, b cl; Roland Guerin, b; Matt Perrine, tba; Fred Sanders,
p, cel; Mark Rubin, oud, b; Steven Greenman, vln. Nov-Dec, 2004 &
Mar 2005, New Orleans, LA) picks this one up and runs with it, emphasizing
the uni- versal nature of Jazz in general. Blumofe’s solemn chants
and Marsalis’ lyrical vibraphone adventures give the session a warm
texture. Beginning with a traditional wedding ceremony and closing with
a dance, the composer’s marriage of solemn prayer with passionate
instrumental refrains provides a moving experience.
Neil Blumofe's "Piety and Desire": A Triumph.
Horeb Records released their latest CD,
Piety and Desire. Original music composed by Neil Blumofe, cantor and
jazz vocalist, bringing together the resounding voices of jazz with traditional
Jewish liturgy and chant. Blumofe’s music summons the world as we
signify love – past, present and future. Recorded in New Orleans,
Piety and Desire is as well - a love song to the times, places and people
of that great city. This album brings together top jazz musicians such
as Jason Marsalis, Roland Guerin, Maurice Brown and Alex Coke as well
as Jewish musicians Mark Rubin and Steven Greenman, whose work, in partnership
with Blumofe’s vocals and fine cantorial improvisations create a
rare collaboration of excellence and spirit. The music, played on instruments
ranging from the vibraphone to the bass flute, captures the many emotions
and nuances of the marriage, from the tender to the exuberant.
The Review: Piety and Desire is a monumental musical accomplishment. At
first, I did not know what to make out of it? How to classify and categorize
this music? For it has all the elements, wealth and epic traits of a Ben
Hur production, a blend of an ethereal bridal chorus and cantorial ecstasy,
a Salome imperial dance, a tabernacle crescendo, a Sanhedrin liturgical
chant, a humanistic New Orleans Jazz, a sacred Gypsy flair a la Bartok,
a Selicha (Confession) mode in a synagogue, a bleeding rebellious ballade
from the Vilna ghetto, a mystical Judaic anthem, a mystic beauty of a
Budapest mysterious unfinished symphony awaiting the grand entrance of
a Mata Hari being transformed into a priestess. The sounds of clarinet,
muted trumpet, the cadence and rhythm of the drums, maybe a hidden outcry
of a Shofar, daring violin strokes, and the voice of Neil Blumofe grab
your whole universe and transmute it into an elixir of a holy musical
exodus. The music is humanistic yet defiant. The arrangements challenge
dogmatic music, for the orchestration embraces a multitude of instruments
rarely used in one single musical composition, especially, when the soprano
sax flirts with the oud, and the vibraphone melt into a tuba. Jason Marsalis
was a magician on the drums, whistle and vibraphone. Alex Coke did a marvelous
job with his bass flute and tenor sax. The tuba of Matt Perrine was extraordinary.
Ben Shaffer with his sensuous clarinet, Maurice Brown with his melodiously
bursting trumpet, Fred Sanders with his virtuosity on piano added a magical
ambiance to "Piety and Desire". Equally powerful and enchanting
are the musical vibs and performance of Derek Douget on alto and soprano
sax, Mark Rubin and Roland Guerin on bass, and Steven Greenman on violin.
The track "In The Tent of Meeting", invites you to experience
the esthetic and deep message of beauty and truth. In the track "Seven
Blessings In The Garden District", you sail into the immense ocean
of joy, enchanting dreams and a rendez-vous with a brighter future.
Blumofe's voice is powerful, yet richly lyrical. This CD is a pure magic.
A masterpiece. An incomprehensible musical virtuosity and vocal beauty.
All compositions are by Neil Blumofe. And each piece is as enigmatic,
varied and mesmerizing as the existentialistic interpretations of the
Bible or a space odyssey. It is also philosophical, religious, rhythmic,
lyrical, intellectual and nostalgic. The beauty and wealth of the music
confused me and delighted me. You got to buy this CD. It is a masterpiece,
a human chronicle, an outstanding musical accomplishment.
Rating: Four stars out of five. Reviewer: Maximillien de Lafayette, for
the New York Monthly Herald.
Horeb Records, Austin, TX, USA.
Neil Blumofe :: Jazz CD Release 2006
:: Piety and Desire
Review by Cindy McLeod
Cantor and composer Neil Blumofe has created
a seminal piece of work with his 2006 release Piety and Desire, a rare
and exotic blend of free form jazz and Jewish music genres.
The thematic project is an exploration into Jewish music and themes through
the jazz medium, and is created for a wedding service. Recorded in New
Orleans just before the floods that devastated the city, Piety and Desire
is infused with the spirit and sound of that city, including performances
by New Orleans natives Jason Marsalis and Roland Guerin, and the title
of the CD, named after two streets.
Piety and Desire is a deep and complex merging of musical, spiritual,
and improvisational ideas integrating into one, creating a contemporary
sound upon a traditional base. Blumofe, the cantor at Austin's Conservative
Congregation Agudas Achim since 1988, first expressed his musical vision
with his 2003 release Moses Muses. His new CD Piety and Desire runs in
a similar vein, a fusion of Jewish liturgy and chant with some of jazz
music's finest voices playing an eclectic choice of instrumentation. The
musicians develop the story through the motifs, melodies, and modes of
cantorial prayer in an improvised, free form jazz idiom.
Blumfole utilizes the parallels of improvisation and interpretation that
run between Jewish Cantorial tradition and jazz to tell the tale of a
Jewish wedding ceremony. His arrangements, which include unusual instrumentation
such as bass flute, tuba, bass clarinet, and oud alongside more traditional
jazz instruments, capture a range of emotion from anticipation to reflection,
sobriety to abandon as the days leading up to and after the ceremony unfold.
These arrangements describe the aural scene for the cantor to paint the
details of the service with his performance of prayer, creating an exciting
fusion of traditional eastern styles with western jazz idiom.
As the story opens, anticipation builds before the wedding ceremony as
the bride and groom are offered advice from the community, and bustling
preparations are made for the celebration. The music moves from the quiet
opening bars of "Fast Connection" where Wagners "Bridal
March," is intoned by the trumpet, and intensifies in a free form
cacophony of voices, falling into the rhythm of a second line march. The
bride and groom fast in preparation, their prayers and recitations a confession
and a shedding of sins before they are called to appear before God. The
slow procession up the isle turns to a traditional klezmer rhythm upon
the bride reaching the groom. The feel moves from klezmer to a passionate
Latin as the violin plays a soulful melody for the couple as they take
their first steps as partners. They begin the second step to "The
Tent of the Meeting", where an ascent beings to a place of honesty
and truth. The music is constructed upon a traditional Sephardic wedding
song from Turkey as the Betrothal is chanted. "High Fidelity"
introduces a joyous brass band feel to accompany the mystical union of
the couple, the swing feel written with a Jewish chant motif. "Seven
Blessings in the Garden District" caps the ceremony, signifying the
couple is eternally connected as it moves through the seven blessings,
the music thoughtful and expansive. Euphosyne, Aglaia and Thalia is a
Priestly blessing made as an offering to the perfect union. The two parts
of the melody act in counterpoint to one another, the winds and the piano
suspended by the timekeeping bass. At last the final step is made and
the mood celebratory as a medley of "I Never Will Marry" and
"Jubilee" blend with a Turkish fasil influence, voiced through
the use of the oud. The mood is happy and celebratory as the family and
friends gather to congratulation the couple.
With Piety and Desire, Neil Blumofe has taken the most universal of themes,
that of the union of man and woman, and expounded upon it in a reverent,
multi-dimensional and evocative work. He steps into the musical realm
that embraces Mingus and John Coltrane, and delivers the message of love,
lover and beloved in this important work that sees no limitations of time
nor boundaries. Highly recommended.
An Article by Michael Hurewitz for The
A Texan Cantor Infuses Jewish Music With
New Orleans Flavor
March 10, 2006
Austin, Texas, bills itself as the live-music capital of the world. But
in a city usually known for its rock beat and country twang, Cantor Neil
Blumofe has begun an exploration of Jewish music and themes played in
a jazz idiom. His new CD, "Piety and Desire" — released
on Valentine's Day — looks at the Jewish wedding ceremony through
the prism of jazz.
Blumofe, the cantor at Austin's Conservative Congregation Agudas Achim
since 1998, began his foray into this territory with 2003's "Moses
Muses," a meditation on the life of Moses. The recently released
"Piety and Desire," featuring original compositions by Blumofe,
was recorded in New Orleans shortly before the flooding that devastated
the city. Both CDs feature largely the same band, composed of some of
Austin's finest jazz musicians and New Orleans jazz luminaries Jason Marsalis
and Roland Guerin.
Jewish cantorial music, or chazanut, refers to the Ashkenazic Jewish musical
tradition, with its intricate prayer modes, motifs and tunes. Trained
in the vocal cantorial tradition at New York City's Jewish Theological
Seminary, Blumofe clearly understood what chazanut had in common with
the jazz music that he had learned. "The teachers I have had made
it clear that chazanut is very much an improvisational art," Blumofe
said in an interview with the Forward. "Just like in jazz, we have
charts, but it is up to the cantor to express the prayer and bring it
Though jazz has long been a vehicle for the exploration of spirituality,
Blumofe seems to be the first to create an original fusion of jazz with
this Jewish cantorial tradition. "I wanted to apply the traditional
training I had in becoming a chazan to my love of jazz," he said.
"The emphasis on improvisation is the same in jazz and traditional
cantoring." Based on the interest he has had from such players as
Marsalis and Guerin, the connection is promising.
Although Blumofe has been a life-long student of jazz, his interest blossomed
during his time in New Orleans as an undergrad at Tulane University. The
city itself has had a huge influence on his work, and the music and magic
of the Crescent City permeates "Piety and Desire." In fact,
the CD takes its name from two parallel New Orleans streets. And the connection
hits home in a particular way. Blumofe's in-laws, who lived in New Orleans
for more than 30 years, lost their home in the flooding that resulted
from Hurricane Katrina. They recently returned to rebuild.
Blumofe's music and ideas have also attracted some of the biggest names
in New Orleans jazz, including Jason Marsalis — of the legendary
Marsalis family. "I believe in mixing jazz with other genres and
putting jazz in other settings, [and] this project accentuates a lot of
what I think about," Marsalis said. "Jazz is the base music,
but Neil hasn't lost touch with the folk elements of cantoring."
On "Piety and Desire," it is the Jewish wedding that comes to
life through jazz and chazanut. Blumofe's compositions re-create the wedding
service, its modalities and prayers, exploring the meaning of the marriage
itself. The music, played on instruments ranging from the vibraphone to
the bass flute, captures the many emotions and nuances of the marriage,
from the tender to the exuberant.
Extensive liner notes, written by Blumofe, highlight the multiple layers
of reference within each track and the CD as a whole. The opening composition,
"Fast Confessions," makes reference to the many voices in the
community "confessing" to the bride and groom, before the music
moves into the confessional mode of the Vidui (the Yom Kippur confession)
recited by the bride and groom before the wedding. "High Fidelity"
uses a brass band jam session to anticipate the excitement as the bride
and groom move toward the wedding canopy.
In "Seven Blessings in the Garden District," Blumofe explores
the heart of the wedding ceremony itself — the sheva b'rachot or
seven blessings that are recited in front of the community. Evoking the
spiritual work of John Coltrane, the band surrounds the blessings with
a beautiful and expansive curtain of sound, suggesting limitless possibility.
"As 21st-century American Jews in our struggle to articulate what
being Jewish in America is, jazz is a good place to begin," Blumofe
said. "It is a true American art form, and jazz has enough latitude
to lend itself to these explorations."
Michael Hurewitz is a social worker and freelance writer living in
A Review by Kate Kaiser of Jazz Now
This is a very unusual production in that
it successfully attempts to translate the suffering of the Jewish people
in the 20th century into the music of Jazz, using the ancient story of
Moses as vehicle to tell these complex tales. The liner notes explain
"In this telling, we present this sacred tale [the journey and life
of Moses] in the American vernacular - the pulse of jazz. The sacred chants
of the synagogue form a natural union with Jazz." I was stunned about
the musical richness and intellectual depths offered by this production.
Cantor Neil Blumofe, who composed all tracks, is a magical story teller,
outstanding musician and sensible teacher. This is not an album to consume
casually and I promise that the more often you listen, the more you will
hear and find reward in becoming part of a unique Jazz experience. The
extensive liner notes contain detailed explanations for each tune, making
Moses' Muses an experience for mind, soul, and ears alike. My personal
favorite is "Mt. Nebo" which mourns and celebrates the death
of Moses and - in the Jazz analogy context - honors the New Orleans funeral
traditions. Jason Marsalis' drumming on this track is nothing short of
fabulous. He displays a lot of talent as a forceful, yet sensitive leader
of the rhythm section throughout the album. I would like to close this
review with another quote from the liner notes "Jazz is a vital music,
informing the realism of the American experience, each note a lesson,
collectively, swinging us forward. Jazz is deep enough to question, wide
enough to hold us together." Enjoy!
A Review by George Robinson of The Jewish
Week (New York)
A Black-Jewish Chord
Neil Blumofe: “Moses’ Muses”
Well, it’s not often I get to say this but “Moses’ Muses”
is unlike any other Jewish music recording I’ve heard in a very
long time, if not ever. Blumofe is a hazan whose own musical tastes run
to John Coltrane and (I’m betting) Pharoah Sanders, and this CD
is a musical biography of Moses in post-bop jazz. Drawing down the spiritual
ancestry of John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” and other
free-jazz masters, Blumofe mixes in synagogue music and chant and the
result is genuinely unusual. The band behind him is excellent, particularly
the reed section of Derek Douget (tenor and alto), Samir Zarif (baritone
and soprano), Alex Coke (tenor and flute) and Ben Saffer (clarinet and
bass clarinet). Does the concept work? I’m not sure, but I’m
willing to keep listening, and that is no small compliment. Available
Rating: 4 stars.
A Review by Ben Jacobson of The Jerusalem
Where Hazanut Meets Jazz
Dec. 8, 2004
There's a tremendous buzz about the new mixing of freeform jazz with various
Jewish musical genres, and here we have a prime example of new light being
brough down thanks to such progressive salad making.
Neil Blumofe is a Chicago area-raised, Manhattan Conservative seminary-trained,
Austin-based cantor. Here he teams up with New Orleans jazz scene luminaries
(including Jason Marsalis, Roland Guerin and Fred Sanders) to explore
the story of Moses, joining hazanut and jazz in an entirely original way.
"Steeplechase" draws from a Sephardi melody to Exodus's "Song
of the Sea" while Blumofe gives his best hazanut improvisations using
the relevant text.
On "15 Stairs," we hear his attempt to use his voice as a saxophone,
with mixed results. But the real treat here is the live (with audience)
recording of "The Quail," in which Blumofe chants over and over,
"Refa na" ("please heal me") in a playful interaction
with the rest of the ensemble.
The jam structures here lead us between motifs by sometimes fading in
and out of specific meters and sometimes (as in the case of "Mt.
Sinai" and "Blessings and Curses") abruptly switching themes.
This not only conveys the feeling of the truly freeform jazz of the masters,
but also establishes an overall mood of wandering through the wilderness
- a theme central to Blumofe's reading of Moses as an archetypal persona.
The WNYC New Sounds Listener Poll
Moses' Muses has been nominated as one of
2004's best CDs.
NEIL BLUMOFE’s MOSES’ MUSES
asserts a pervasive New York ambiance, specifically the now
venerable Lower East Side Scene. Part of it stems from the program which
flies a banner rich in Jewish and Hassidic hues and textures. Blumofe’s
band is custom-built to handle the long-form jams. His own vocal style
incorporates an abiding Cantorial influence coupled with a shrewd sense
of timing and placement. He waits in the wings on the opening “Steeplechase”
until the tune’s final minutes and in so doing achieves a dramatic
entrance atop the swirling horn-fueled ensemble. The harmonies between
his wordless phrases and the horn section on “Blessings and Curses,”
which morph into Second Line-fueled New Orleans street band theatre, are
the work of an astute arranger’s mind.