May 26, 2014
The duet-playing partnership created by African-American jazz pianist Warren Byrd, and Jewish-American jazz bassist David Chevan blossomed into a full-scale group, the Afro-Semitic Experience, for an interfaith Martin Luther King memorial service in 1998,. Their music is an intricate tapestry of the distinct cultures and heritages of the members of the group, weaving stories and music together as they celebrate, compare, contrast and explain the Jewish and African-American sacred traditions.
For more than fifteen years, their results have been compelling, both from a social perspective (their first CD had the striking image of a restricted beach club sign warning “Membership Limited to Gentiles Only” on the cover, driving home the title This is the Afro-Semitic Experience) and musical perspective. The band sound brings the traditional trumpet/sax frontline to a new place when joined by a resonator and lap-top guitarist/violinist and multiple percussionists.
Jazz Souls on Fire, an album that celebrates the group’s favorite spiritual music, is a logical set for the band. Choosing from traditional Jewish music (“Avadim Hayinu”), Spirituals (“Up Above My Head I Hear Music in the Air”) and classic jazz from John Coltrane, McCoy Tyner and Hank Mobley may seem to be a mixed bag, but in the well-trained hands of this group, the connections between the music shine through. They wisely try new and different approaches to the tunes – “The Creator Has a Master Plan” is driven by Stacy Phillips’ strings rather than the horn associated with Pharaoh Sanders; Duke Ellington’s “Shout ‘Em, Aunt Tillie” sounds like a Eastern European dance tune thanks to Will Bartlett’s clarinet .
Perhaps what is most enjoyable about Jazz Souls on Fire is the obvious joy and sense of fun with which the group plays this music. “Spiritual Jazz” can sometimes be atonal, and take itself too seriously, missing the goal of true spiritual transcendence and ecstasy. There’s no chance of that happening here – check out the way “Soul Station” is handled, and you’ll know that the Gospel according to the Afro-Semitic Experience is one of love.