Hear O Israel
A Sabbath Service in Jazz

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Jonathan Klein began experimenting with syntheses of Hebrew liturgy and jazz during the 1960s. “To my sensibilities,” he has recalled, “Judaism and jazz seemed to go together quite naturally.” In 1965, while he was an active member of the Reform movement’s youth organization, NFTY (North American Federation of Temple Youth), Hear O Israel: A Sabbath Service in Jazz was performed at Reform synagogues throughout the Northeast by a quintet consisting of Ellen Gould, Debra Miller, Lawrence Breitbord, Alan Sher—all members of the Temple Emanuel branch of NFTY—and Klein himself at the piano. In 1967, he revised the service for a slightly larger ensemble, in which form it was performed a few times and, with NFTY’s support, recorded by an all-star jazz ensemble that included a trio with Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass, and Grady Tate on drums. In addition to the written score, the trio improvised on introductions (to mi khamokha and to the Torah service), and Herbie Hancock improvised an interlude within what is called—in the classic Reform parlance of the old Union Prayer Book—the “Adoration.” For a long time the master of that limited-edition recording disappeared from the market. Still, apart from the sections performed by the trio—and despite the participation of other fine jazz musicians in the other sections—Klein felt that the choral singing sounded too “classical” in style and that a more jazz-oriented vocal approach was needed. In 1992, he made yet a third version of the service, in anticipation of the Milken Archive recording, which included two female and two male singers, two woodwinds, trumpet, flügelhorn, trombone, piano, bass, and drums.

These recorded excerpts of the final version and edition (1992), together with the improvisations taken from the 1967 recording, represent the composer’s intentions, concept, and artistic vision to his enthusiastic satisfaction. “As a teenager,” he reminisced recently, ”there were sounds in my head that I just didn’t know how to let out and onto paper so that they could be performed. Twenty-five years later, with the help of some fine musicians among Berklee faculty and students, it became possible. There should be a b’rakha for being given the chance finally to more or less get something right!”

These recorded excerpts also reflect faithfully the natural affinity Klein perceived in the 1960s between the improvisatory natures of two otherwise distinct art forms: jazz and cantorial tradition. He was particularly intrigued by the idea of continuous creativity in relation to performance. His own thoughts about the work help us better to appreciate it:

The ritual act of creating this music during worship (i.e., improvisation) seemed most appropriate for the Sabbath, when each week, according to Jewish mystical traditions, we re-create the world. While I was not suggesting that this style or mode replace nusaḥ hat’filla [the traditional Ashkenazi prayer modes] as the main musical diet for Jewish worship, I did feel that its occasional use added a unique spirituality to the worship service.

Klein saw jazz improvisation’s potential as a spiritual act, in as much as individual performers have the opportunity to create something on the spot, ad libitum. They are thus able to express inner thoughts and feelings while at the same time relating to a supporting ensemble:

The risks involved—the fact that no two performances are ever exactly the same—can heighten the sense of the moment, and sometimes lead to beautiful artistic expression. I feel the job of the composer in this situation is to provide a framework in which this can happen.

Of course, the same observation about the uniqueness of each performance could—and should—apply equally to traditional cantorial art, which is highly improvisatory by nature. The two vocal styles, timbres, and modalities, however, differ radically from each other. Klein describes the vocal style in his work as that of a mainstream modern jazz vocal group “somewhere between 1948 and the present.” The vocal lines are structured like melodies played by the jazz instrumentalists. “These are not melodies one could expect a congregation to sing or even listen to on a regular basis,” he has reflected. “Rather, by being presented with a very personal spiritual experience, a congregant might also feel encouraged to explore his or her personal relationship to prayer. I hope that at least a few listeners can find new appreciation for familiar texts in a different but honest musical setting.”

When Klein’s service was first performed at his father’s congregation in Worcester in 1969, there was, as he has recalled, very little neutral reaction. “The congregants either loved or hated it,” and the innovation of using jazz to frame the prayers to which they were accustomed ignited strong reaction. But Klein notes that when the service was performed twenty-five years later at Temple Sinai in Sharon, Massachusetts, it was generally well received—in part because expectations had evolved. By then, “it provided zero shock value.”

With the hindsight of more than forty years, Klein still feels that his initial concept—and the rationale behind the combination of jazz and Jewish worship—was valid. But he sees his motivation as more spontaneous than academic. “I was immersed in the vocabulary of jazz at the time. Musically, it was the only language I could speak. To put it simply, this was how the words—including the eloquent English portions of the old Reform Union Prayer Book—sang to me.” There could, of course, be no more honest motivation from liturgical or artistic perspectives.