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A Jazzy Hanukkah: Mizrahi meets Levy

A Jazzy Hanukkah: Mizrahi meets Levy

— By Arts Critic Howard Reich for the Chicago Tribune

Can a cantor swing?

Can a jazzman play Hebraic chants — on harmonica?

Can the two communicate with each other musically?

"One Incredible Hanukkah Jam" raised these questions Sunday afternoon at Spertus, where a capacity audience heard two leading Chicago musicians search for the place where Jewish music and jazz converge. With a slight delay, they found it.

At first, cantor Alberto Mizrahi and harmonica-piano whiz Howard Levy struggled a bit to connect. Though each commands a formidable reputation in his own musical sphere, and though the two have played together in various contexts, the "Hanukkah Jam" offered a great deal of repertoire they hadn't performed together before.

Moreover, Mizrahi and Levy — to their credit — chose works far outside conventional Hanukkah fare. If the adventurousness of the program was a lure for the audience, it posed an obvious challenge to the musicians.

So in the opening selections of the "Hanukkah Jam," Levy and Mizrahi sounded tentative, both musically and in their stage patter. Sometimes in mild disagreement over which composition came next, they eventually settled on one song or another, making light of the minor mishaps.

By the time they arrived at Flory Jagoda's "Eight Candles," which references the lights on the Hanukkah menorah, Mizrahi and Levy clicked. With Levy articulating tango rhythms at the piano and Mizrahi singing buoyantly while doubling on doumbek (a hand drum), the duo produced the first genuinely animated music of the afternoon. But not the last.

In a Turkish rendition of a Hallel psalm, Mizrahi sang an intricately crafted chant, bending notes and embellishing melodic lines with high skill. But Mizrahi transcended the prayerful setting, as well, improvising lines as a jazz musician might.

All the while, Levy offered the extended chords and blues-tinged phrasings that are at the core of the jazz pianist's art. Yet nothing he played sounded out of place or anachronistic. To the contrary, Levy and Mizrahi proved that certain scales and melodic techniques work equally well in jazz and Middle Eastern music — so long as the musicians are conversant in both idioms.

Through most of this performance, Mizrahi produced some of the most rhythmically free, melodically uninhibited singing he has given Chicago. Nowhere was that more apparent than when Levy played "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" while Mizrahi simultaneously riffed on "Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah" (you had to be there). Before long, Mizrahi was scatting boldly, his fluidity in this style of singing a pleasant surprise.

For all of Levy's fine work on piano, his international reputation rests largely on his harmonica playing, and his solos here were as striking as if he were performing in a jazz club. In his composition "Darkness," Levy unfurled a gorgeously nocturnal line, accompanying himself with one hand on piano. In "This Little Light of Mine," he layered more themes, counter-themes and chordal accompaniment than one previously thought a single harmonica could yield.

So Levy and Mizrahi clearly are onto something here. It's not hard to imagine Spertus making this concert an annual Hanukkah tradition, the two artists perhaps augmenting their work with a larger ensemble or children's choir.

At the very least, one hardly can imagine a jazzier way to say Happy Hanukkah. #

hreich@tribune.com
Twitter @howardreich

Tuesday, December 20, 2011