By Allan Ripp
June 14, 2018
Hear, O Israel,
Hear O Jazz
The story of a how a remarkable, private-label Jewish prayer service featuring Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and other jazz greats came to be recorded in 1967; the composer hated it, but got a chance at a total do-over thanks to the Milken Archive of Jewish Music
During winter break of his sophomore year at Brown in 1967, Jonathan Klein traveled to New York with his French horn, baritone sax and an unusual score he’d written several years earlier.
An aspiring composer and son of a Reform rabbi from Worcester, Mass., Klein had taken a traditional Jewish prayer service – complete with candle blessing, Kiddush, psalmist meditation and the Sh’ma – and set it to jazz tunes, from snappy to bluesy to bossa nova and even modal. Congregations around New England – including his father’s – enjoyed his adaptation and now Klein was getting chance to record the work, part of a recruiting effort by the National Federation of Temple Youth to attract new members.
A producer and sound engineer rented a recording studio on East 14th Street in Manhattan. Klein had scant rehearsal time and all of six hours to pull the session together with a pick-up band of professional musicians, a pair of female opera singers and a rabbi to read the spoken portions in English and Hebrew. There wasn’t enough money for a second booking or multiple takes, especially since one of the musicians was getting double the usual union scale. A few creative frustrations flared as the day wore on.
Somehow, NFTY got its album – a 38-minute, nine-cut recording entitled Hear, O Israel. A few hundred copies were pressed in March, 1968 and distributed freely to local chapters and shuls as a way of showing Jewish high schoolers that services could be hip – the LP’s blurry cover photograph featured a Torah against a tomato-red backdrop, flanked by a trumpet, sax and French horn. There was virtually no retail distribution or radio air play; the record didn’t carry a catalogue number, just a NFTY stamp on the label.
Fifty years later, Klein gets testy when reminded of the project. An accomplished commercial and TV composer who taught film scoring at Berklee College of Music until his retirement in 2014, he prefers not to discuss the recording, though given a chance he’ll count all the ways it bombed.
“The two singers were totally wrong for the job and whoever transposed the tenor sax part pushed it up an octave too high, which threw the voices off,” Klein says from his home in Framingham, Mass., as if recalling a root canal. Mostly he blames himself. “There were amateurish writing mistakes and the arrangements were weak – it took me years to compose well for vocals. Plus, I never should have performed – my horn sounded flat and didn’t mesh with the others. It was a harsh lesson to learn not to play on your own project, something I always told my students in years to come.”
Klein has every right to go hard on his early effort, particularly since he had the rare opportunity at a do-over, via a 1992 re-recording underwritten by the Milken Archive of Jewish Music, with revised arrangements, more generous studio time and a whole new ensemble of his own choosing to work with. But for those who’ve had chance to hear it, the original was no failure and undeserving of its composer’s dismissive assessment. For despite the bloopers and missed assignments, Klein had one amazing stroke of good fortune in the musicians he landed that day, which rescues Hear, O Israel from the scrapheap of jazz vespers.
Out front on trumpet and flugelhorn was Thad Jones, member of a prominent jazz family whose brothers were pianist Hank Jones (eldest) and drummer Elvin Jones (youngest); in 1967 Thad was drawing attention for the sassy big band he had recently formed with drummer Mel Lewis; it would soon become one of the biggest acts in jazz. On alto/tenor saxophones and flute was Jerome Richardson, whose credits included recordings with legends Cannonball Adderley, Charles Mingus, Milt Jackson, and Kenny Burrell, along with top singers Sarah Vaughn, Abby Lincoln, Dinah Washington, Betty Carter, and even Harry Belafonte. The rhythm section was anchored by bassist Ron Carter and drummer Grady Tate, two of the steadiest beats in the business, with hundreds of albums between them and long careers ahead.
But the leader of the date – reflected by his double paycheck and extended playing time – was pianist Herbie Hancock. Still a member of Miles Davis’ seminal quintet and known for breakout tunes like “Watermelon Man” and “Maiden Voyage,” Hancock was a 27-year-old jazz thoroughbred, perhaps the most in-demand pianist in New York. He’d already had a small string of hit albums under his own name on Blue Note, but was busy freelancing as a sideman for other first-tier labels including Atlantic, Columbia, Verve, A&M, RCA and Cadet. Having Hancock at the keyboard, with his inventive chord choices, harmonies, solos and rhythmic comping, was guaranteed to produce superior recordings – as it had for such jazz greats as Freddie Hubbard, Lee Morgan, Kenny Dorham, Wayne Shorter, Bobby Hutcherson, Grant Green, Jackie McLean, Tony Williams, Stan Getz, Donald Byrd, Wes Montgomery and Davis, among others. That NFTY was able to secure Hancock and his mates for a private-label album of Jewish liturgical verses cooked up by a no-name college sophomore was a major coup.
A first-rate modern jazz suite
I first became aware of Hear, O Israel around 2002, via Fred Cohen, owner of the Jazz Record Center, an invaluable resource for rare and out-of-print recordings housed in a small office building in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood. Cohen knew I was a Hancock fanatic and mentioned he could obtain a copy through his pipeline of collectors – this was before E-Bay and Amazon made anything accessible. Although a prolific performer, Hancock has produced far fewer albums as a leader than his peers – including fellow piano icons Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea and McCoy Tyner. The idea that he’d headlined a never-released 1960s record of Jewish prayers was riveting, which is why I didn’t flinch in coughing up $175 for the pristine LP Cohen sourced. But I no longer owned a turntable, so had to pay another $30 to have the vinyl version converted to CD at Gryphon Used Books on West 72nd Street.
The album did not disappoint – and still doesn’t every time it pops up on my iPod. From the opening dance-like “Candle Blessing” to the final up-tempo “Benediction,” Hear, O Israel is a first-rate modern jazz suite, with inspired source material performed at a high level by some of the finest jazz musicians of the day.
Sure, some of the vocals are garbled and the rabbi’s enunciations grandiose – what rabbi’s aren’t? The pacing is off in a few places, including several abrupt endings. And that French Horn solo on “Mi Chamocha” – it sounds distant and sluggish, no wonder Klein winces thinking about it a half-century later. But he’s carried along nicely by Hancock, who lifts the entire group with brilliant solos, intros and chord voicings that would be more widely referenced today if the recording weren’t so obscure. A few of the cuts are barely a minute long, which is a shame, since they start out with promise. If only Herbie had taken a solo after Jerome Richardson’s flute on the spritely “Kiddush.” If only there were alternate takes!
It’s not a stretch to say that Hear, O Israel captures a fleeting moment near the end of an era in post-Bop jazz, and reveals a small missing link in the career of one of its masters. Within a year after NFTY handed out its scant stash, Hancock would be among the prominent players joining Miles Davis in a Columbia recording studio for the making of In a Silent Way, a beacon for a new type of jazz fused with electrified rock that soon morphed into funk, disco, soul and other pop styles that pushed jazz into more commercial directions. By 1969, Hancock would leave Blue Note for the bigger Warner Brothers, utilizing electric keyboards and trying out a variety of unjazzy sounds and polyrhythms that would propel him to superstar status with his 1973 album Headhunters.
But in 1967-68, jazz was still mostly sticking to its side of the street, which limited its popular appeal but also gave so many recordings from those years a stylistic purity that some critics feel represented a kind of heyday. Hear, O Israel belongs in that last chapter of the Sixties sound typified by Blue Note – a mostly acoustic, small ensemble playing original compositions powered by crisp, straight-ahead rhythms and simple, if clever, arrangements. That everything was wedded to a set of Hebrew prayers only added to its honesty.
It’s worth noting that in early March 1968, less than three months after recording Hear, O Israel, Hancock went into a Blue Note studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, leading a sextet that included Ron Carter and Thad Jones, to produce one of his greatest albums from that period, Speak Like a Child. It was released that summer and became an instant classic, with amazing piano work driving a set of first-rate tunes, including “Riot,” “The Sorcerer,” Ron Carter’s “First Trip,” “Toys,” and the title track. A side-by-side comparison of the two albums does not diminish Hear, O Israel, despite the obvious production differences. Not only does the style of play place each record from the same peak time frame but there’s a similar spontaneity and upbeat feeling to both - it could well be that Hancock carried a bit of Klein’s project with him in conceiving the latter album, including an elegiac ensemble piece called “Goodbye to Childhood.”
Israel compares favorably to several other religiously-rooted jazz recordings from that era that likewise hold up decades later. One was a 1963 Blue Note album by trumpeter Donald Byrd called A New Perspective, paying jazzy tribute to old-time spirituals and gospel hymns. It, too, is enhanced by Hancock on piano, as well as a rousing chorus of Pentecostal singers. The other is a live Episcopal church service captured at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral in 1965 – transformed by a trio led by pianist Vince Guaraldi, who soon gained lasting fame for scoring the Peanuts TV specials. Complete with sounds of coughing and page-turning, as well as a bishop’s greeting, invocations of “Christ our Savior” and a 68-voice children’s choir that could have included Linus and Charlie Brown, Grace Cathedral (Fantasy Records), is also an extraordinary merging of jazz and sacred text. Hear, O Israel has a rightful, Jewish place alongside both of these outstanding recordings.
Although the original LP has disappeared even from auction sites, you can buy a CD or even a vinyl version of Hear, O Israel online. Credit an enterprising Brit called Jonny Trunk (real name Jonathan Benton-Hughes), who swooped in a decade ago and obtained rights to the original 1968 recording from the union – and no, that’s not the musicians’ union, but the Union for Reform Judaism, NFTY’s non-profit parent. A recent search on Amazon found used copies for $110, while a mint version was selling for $411, reflecting Trunk’s shrewd move of keeping supplies limited – his label bills it as “The Secret Herbie Hancock Album.” But you can also listen to the whole recording for free on YouTube. Trunk switched out the homemade cover for a more modern graphic depicting an illustrated red menorah against a white backdrop because, as he put it kindly, the original sleeve image “is so very terrible.”
Someone sent Jonathan Klein a copy of the Trunk re-issue a few years ago, though he swears he hasn’t cracked the cellophane covering the CD. For him, Hear, O Israel wasn’t properly realized until his 1992 redo with the Milken Archive, which for various reasons was kept under wraps for two decades. It can also be sampled for free on Spotify or YouTube, and includes five minutes of Hancock-Carter-Tate trio work from the original spliced into Klein’s updated reworking of the prayer service. Not only was that the limit of material that could be used without paying royalties, it was about all Klein felt worth salvaging from the 1967 session.
Klein’s loyalty to the Milken redo is understandable – it’s more polished, the vocals discernible and the arrangements richer and more evolved. And no French horn solo. But before passing final judgment it may be worth going back to the beginning to appreciate how this singular work of Jewish jazz produced two dueling versions of separate but equally lasting value, musically and spiritually. That includes hearing from someone other than Klein who was present at both recordings.
“Ein Keloheinu” a German Drinking Song
Jonathan Klein was in high school when he first had the idea to blend jazz with Hebrew prayer. A piano student who could hold his own on trumpet and French horn, he played in a Dixieland band and spent summers at New England Music Camp in Maine. He knew his way around Glenn Miller charts as well as Bop tunes by Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. He even learned to play baritone sax after hearing Gerry Mulligan.
“I started to find ways to match the music I liked with lyrical texts I found in old Hebrew Union prayer books,” he says. “Some of those editions were from the 1920s. The language sounded archaic, but if you followed the natural flow of the words you could find a good melody to pair up with the prayers.”
Klein’s father Joseph encouraged the efforts. “My Dad was a serious classical listener, mainly opera. He claimed to own a copy of every opera ever recorded and regularly taped Sunday radio performances of the Met, but he got a kick out of what I was doing,” says Klein, whose paternal grandfather was an Orthodox cantor and hobbyist composer.
Writing at the piano, Klein made no attempt to create “authentic” Jewish music or retread Yiddishy klezmer songs with 60s cool. Drummer Shelly Manne did just that with a 1962 album called “Steps to the Desert,” with jazzed-up versions of chestnuts like “Hava Nagila,” “Yossel, Yossel,” “Tzena” and “Bie Mir Bist du Shoen.” There were various jazz renditions of “Exodus” that often played on radio at the time.
“My Dad told me not to worry about Jewish influences, since there really was no such thing as music that’s inherently Jewish,” Klein says. “Many of the melodies we associate now as Jewish were just Mittel European popular music. The tune most often used for ‘Ein Keloheinu’ was a German drinking song.”
It struck Klein that modern jazz, with quick chord changes, bluesy refrains and on-the-spot improvisations, clicked well with Jewish prayer. But there was something more. “Many jazz players sway and rock when they perform and it looks as if they’re davening,” he says. “There is something about playing jazz that can feel transcendent. That’s what I was going for – even with vocals it wasn’t meant for congregations to sing along with, but as a musical-spiritual experience.” His own tastes were also expanding, drawing on influences from Hancock, Miles Davis and other modernists.
Worcester Debut in 1965
One of those taken with Klein’s concept was David Davis, a recent graduate of Hebrew Union College, who had moved to Worcester in the summer of 1965 to become assistant rabbi under Klein’s father at Temple Emanuel, a flourishing synagogue near Boston that at the time boasted some 1,400 families. Davis got to know Jonathan as head of Emanuel’s youth group and liked what he’d heard of the work in progress – so much so that he asked Klein to perform portions for a NFTY conclavette held that September in Worcester under the theme, “Sects and Symbols Within Judaism.” It was an immediate hit, and Davis saw an opportunity to get in front of a larger audience.
“As with a lot of shuls, Friday nights at Temple Emanuel were mostly for the older crowd,” remembers Davis, now 81 and a resident of Surprise, Arizona outside Phoenix. “Some evenings we didn’t get 100 people. It struck me that adding jazz to the service could draw new energy and engagement with our members, especially since Jonathan’s work was so respectful to the prayers. Rabbi Klein, who was open to trying things out, was in favor of letting Jonathan share his piece with the congregation, though he asked that the music not be too loud.”
More than 1,000 people packed into Emanuel’s main sanctuary for the first performance in November, with Klein at piano and several other NFTY members on vocals. That included a talented singer from Brandeis named Ellen Gould, who went on to become a versatile stage and Emmy-winning TV actress, and author of her own one-woman musical based on her grandmother’s stories called Bubbe Meisis.
“It was a bigger turnout than the biggest Bar Mitzvah,” Davis recalls. “Everyone was rapt. We knew right away this was a special work that felt at home in a spiritual setting. That’s why we began to call it a ‘concert service in jazz.’”
Hearing about the experiment, other synagogues invited Davis and his troupe to make appearances. “We traveled around in 1966 as our schedules allowed, performing at Brandeis and Wheaton colleges, and for congregations in Boston and Marblehead, as well as New Haven, New York and even Baltimore, where I was from,” the rabbi recounts. “Jonathan continued to refine the music. He was already taking courses at Berklee in Boston. At the time, a number of people were trying out folk and rock Shabbat services, but Jonathan’s approach was unique and his compositions sophisticated. He was casting a fresh light on texts that for many had become rote.”
New York Recording Date
In 1967, Davis relocated to New York to become national director of NFTY and was given budget for creative projects to expand national outreach. “I immediately thought of Jonathan and his jazz service – it was the perfect vehicle for a recruiting push,” says Davis, who would go on to chair Judaic studies programs at the University of San Francisco, Vanderbilt and Arizona State University.
One of the first people he called on was Michael Isaacson, a former NFTY music counselor who had written his own jazz and Jobim-flavored bossa nova treatments for Friday night services. Having recently earned a degree in music education from Hunter College, Isaacson knew of Klein’s concert through the NFTY grapevine and was eager to help pull the record together, starting with his own call to a rising young composer/arranger (and fellow NFTY counselor) named Charlie Morrow to oversee the project. Morrow, a graduate of Columbia College and Mannes School of Music, had worked on a wide variety of musical projects, arranging tunes for Simon & Garfunkel, composing background for an Andy Warhol collage exhibit, and performing his own religious choral work at the San Francisco Opera House that aired on NBC in 1965, with Edward G. Robinson hosting.
“Jon had a dream team of musicians he wanted, but it was Charlie who got everyone together, including the singers, even though he wasn’t credited on the album,” says the Brooklyn-born Isaacson, who likewise wasn’t cited for his own creative input.
“It’s difficult to imagine now, but in the mid-60s Ron Carter, Thad Jones and even Herbie Hancock were on-demand musicians who worked hard every week to make a living,” Isaacson notes. “They were regular, card-carrying union guys you could request on a day rate. It wasn’t so surprising they happened to be available for a random studio gig, even if it turned out to be an album of Jewish prayers.”
If the pros resented the amateurs, they didn’t show it. “I first met Herbie in a cab on our way to a rehearsal with the singers the night before we recorded,” Klein recalls. “I’d just gotten to the city and was staying with Rabbi Davis and was caught up in reviewing the score, so didn’t quite appreciate I was about to cut an album with one of the greatest jazz musicians alive.”
He may have felt a little added pressure about what was in store. “I was told that my music was only meant to cover one side of an album,” Klein recalls. “I didn’t find out it was for the whole album until shortly before the session was made.” Still, he remembers, “Herbie, whom I revered as a genius, was totally matter-of-fact and treated me like an equal, and not some kid.”
Davis, then 30, had the same welcoming vibe. Having contributed spoken parts for the jazz service during past performances, it seemed natural for him to reprise his role on the record – you can hear his distinct Baltimore pronunciations calling out words like “TOE-rah” and “the Lord of HOE-sts.”
“When I walked into the studio Herbie, Thad Jones and the other musicians were already jamming,” he remembers. “If I’d known who we were working with I’d have been a nervous wreck but I wasn’t as aware of their stature as Jonathan. They accepted me as a peer, which was so satisfying. Looking back, there was an arrogance to our enterprise in asking these greats to record a college student’s jazz interpretation of Hebrew liturgy, but they couldn’t have been nicer or more gracious.”
Ron Carter Remembers
For Ron Carter, the session may have been just another day in the studio, but that’s not to say he approached it with anything less than his usual sense of purpose.
“Every day, on every recording, it’s a different band, under a different leader, with different concepts, different keys and instrumentation,” says the 81-year-old Carter, whom Guinness certifies as the world’s “most recorded jazz bassist.” Thus, when asked which of the more than 2,200 albums he’s made are among his favorites, he answers diplomatically, “Whichever ones they called me to come in for.”
But Carter acknowledges that performing with Hancock has always been special, and in the mid-1960s their bond was especially close as part of the Miles Davis group. “Herbie raises the level of music in an instant – that includes me, but also drummers, singers, whoever he’s working with. He has the desire and ability to listen and anticipate what comes next, or what should come next. He hears the other musicians so that his notes and chord choices and solos are integrated with everyone else. That’s a true leader.”
That Carter never got to solo on Israel doesn’t bother him a wit. “I’ve never been one of those players hanging back behind the palm tree waiting for my spotlight,” he says in a velvety soft voice from his apartment on New York’s Upper West Side. “My role has always been to bring a dynamic to the band and to help make the whole group sound like it should and also have fun. I take whatever solos I want in my living room and I always sound great!”
Hearing that the composer has less than a four-star regard for this off-label recording, Carter responds, “That’s his honest opinion, but from what I remember the music was well written and had a lot of movement and changes, which I always appreciate. The singers may not have been jazz-trained but they were right there and added a serious, reverential quality to our work. I remember heading home that day not only feeling that we’d done the job, but we were adding something new to the normal jazz library. In fact, I’ve given a copy of the recording to some cantors and rabbis I’ve met to see how they react. They were astonished by the quality of the tunes and the force of the music. So, I don’t think you can say it wasn’t a success.”
Legendary Jazz Master in the Sound Booth
There was another key hand at work helping shape Hear, O Israel – thanks again to the uncredited Charlie Morrow. The album’s official producer was an Italian-born music publisher named Raoul Ronson, whose company Seasaw Music Corp. licensed the vocal parts, paid for the studio and contracted with the musicians. But that’s because at the time Morrow didn’t have a business entity from which to operate, though that would change in coming years.
In addition to hiring Ronson and bringing in all the players, Morrow called on another of his contacts to run the sound board as recording engineer – Jerome Newman.
“Jerry was a legend,” says Morrow, speaking recently from the Netherlands in between performance projects throughout Europe. No disputing that: while still an undergraduate at Columbia in the 1940s, Newman was known for lugging a portable disk-cutting recorder to Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem, where he captured early Bebop sets by Charlie Christian, Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker. Although he later mastered recordings of flamenco guitarists, ethnic Greek and Arabic folk tunes, Beethoven symphonies and Flemish chamber works, Newman, who died in 1970, is best remembered for his jazz output, including studio albums by Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy, Pharaoh Sanders, Oscar Pettiford and others.
“It was Jerry who ensured that the session was ‘on brand,’” Morrow says. “A quality recording depends on the lineage and legacy of those at the engineering controls – that’s what made all those Blue Note albums so distinctive under care of Rudy Van Gelder. Jerry likewise knew all the technical aspects within the studio setting needed to create a strong jazz sound.
“Keep in mind,” he continues, “because of the cost constraints, this was a straight live-to-stereo recording. There was no multi-track machine, where you could balance the constituent parts in post-production. Every take was the way it was – what you got is what you got. Having Jerry engineer the work was further proof that I always wanted to be the least talented person on set. There are some collectors who would cherish this recording solely on the basis that it was one of Jerry’s works.”
Still, Morrow considers the session with mixed feelings today. In a musical career loaded with highlights – critically acclaimed rock operas, sound installations and symphonic works, plus a thriving commercial business that has included film scores (Ken Russell’s Altered States) and ad jingles for Coke, Hefty Bags and the famous rat-a-tat-tat percussion track behind WINS radio slogan, “You give us 22 minutes, we’ll give you the world” – his total absence from any association with Hear, O Israel feels a bit of a slight.
“I never got paid, for one thing,” he says. “And you could say there were a few bad feelings that day. Jonathan wanted more creative control and probably felt patronized when Herbie took over his tunes. He wasn’t exactly receptive to my ideas and recommendations – we had some dicey moments with the arrangements and he was struggling, especially with the time limitations we had to work with, so he may have blamed me for any rough patches. I’m certain he faulted me for the singers, who happened to be world-class vocalists – Antonia Lavanne and Phyllis Bryn-Julson. The fact is, as soon as Jerry put Jonathan into the mix, he was going to be dialed back to let the other players do their thing.
“For whatever reason, no one ever reached out to me afterwards, not even to share a copy of the album,” Morrow adds. “I knew it was a unique undertaking based on Jonathan’s remarkable idea and this exceptional coming together of talent – but it just never blossomed in my life or became something to add to my CV, even though I was the actual producer.”
“Probably More Jazz than Jewish”
Michael Isaacson remembers the tension at play in the Stereo Sound studio that day. “Jonathan was definitely in a post-adolescent state,” he recalls. “He had his French horn and his baritone sax and wanted to contribute, but frankly his playing got in the way of some really great jazz.
“I can understand his frustration,” Isaacson continues. “Charlie hired two singers who were terrific at opera and new music, and could sight read any score, but they didn’t have a feel for jazz or what Jonathan had in mind for the piece – they were basically singing Hebrew phonetics. Meanwhile, you had these killer musicians who came together for one six-hour project. They’d never seen the material before and were tolerating the prayer verses and the first 8 or 16 bars up front so they could get to what they did best. Essentially, Herbie and the others were playing jazz on changes. Jonathan may have felt there wasn’t a proper alignment between one text and another, or with the music. Without question, it’s a landmark recording and a noble experiment deserving of a wider audience. But in the end, the scale probably tipped and you had an album that was more jazz than Jewish, which is OK, but it’s not how it was supposed to go.”
Rabbi Davis doesn’t see it that way. “Was it a perfect recording?” he asks. “Maybe not. Jonathan zeroed in on the negativity but he may not have realized what we accomplished. It made a real stir in our community. It got people talking around the country and it had a lasting impact on many young people and artists.” One of those he remembers was the late Debbie Friedman, whose folky reworking of conventional prayers and songs became a staple of many Reform services. “Debbie was a folky but she loved our jazz album and said it helped her realize how open the prayer service was to different musical styles and voices,” Davis says.
“A Service that Really Swings”
In the liner notes to the LP, Davis included a statement by Klein that suggests the recording may have delivered on his own expectation for the work:
There are advantages to using jazz in a religious context. The question that has to be asked is, “Does jazz offer the congregant anything special in the way of religious feeling or is it just a gimmick to get him to show up at a Friday night service?” It is my feeling that it is possible that someone may find something in a service that he never felt before. He may feel like tagging along when he is called to worship by a happily swinging bor’chu in three-quarter time, or he may sit up and really listen when a blues riff shouts, ‘Hear, O Israel.’ In all the improvisation, he may find instant creation taking place right before his eyes and ears and in the symbolic act of imitation he may discover an act of prayer.
Although understandably passed over by Downbeat and most jazz savants of the day, Israel found its way into the hands a few critics, including venerable New York Times music writer John. S. Wilson, who authored a review for the June, 1968 issue of High Fidelity. Noting that readers could purchase a mail-order copy of the album for $5 through NFTY, Wilson explained that Hear, O Israel shared a heritage with Duke Ellington’s acclaimed Sacred Concert recordings originally performed at Grace Cathedral in 1962 and ’65 – music that Ellington himself characterized as “the most important thing I have ever done.” He also cited another contemporary jazz church service recording called Prodigal Son by trombonist Phil Wilson.
“One of the distinguishing factors of both Klein’s and Wilson’s [work] is that, like Ellington’s sacred concerts, they use first-rate jazz musicians,” John Wilson wrote, adding, “the level of these performances is consistently high.”
Wilson continued, offering his own praise for Hear, O Israel:
Hancock appears to be the central force in the group. He sets the tone, establishes directions, and plays several strong solos. Richardson is also a vital factor on his saxophones and particularly with his flute on a bossa nova Kiddush. Two voices are worked in very effectively, tying the traditional sound of the service to its jazz aspects and, at one point, taking on the coloration of Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross. This is a service that really swings. If there can be a valid relationship between jazz and religion, this would seem to be the basis on which it should be done.
Chance at Redemption
As soon as you learn of its existence, the Milken Archive makes noble sense. The Santa Monica-based non-profit is a repository to “document, preserve and disseminate the vast body of music that pertains to the American Jewish experience.” Founded by Lowell Milken, a philanthropist and former Wall Streeter, the archive holds 625 recorded works, from solemn oratorios commemorating the Holocaust to Zionist anthems, family Seders and tributes to Yiddish theater and Vaudeville. But don’t expect to find scratchy 78s and other historical remnants among the collection.
“We’re not an archive in the conventional sense – in that we don’t collect and preserve old recordings,” explains Jeff Janeczko, a UCLA-trained ethnomusicologist who serves as Milken’s principal curator and chief operating officer. “Rather, we look to make new recordings of works that had not been commercially available.”
At its start in 1989-90, the archive had more modest ambitions, but even then, Hear, O Israel was assured a spot for posterity – Michael Isaacson would see to that. Isaacson had come a long way since his days as a NFTY counselor in Upstate New York, leading sing-a-long campfire services accented with the sounds of Joan Baez and Peter, Paul & Mary. Earning a Ph.D. in composition from Eastman School of Music, he’d become one of Hollywood’s top composers, scoring hit TV shows like Hawaii Five-O, The Bionic Woman, Days of Our Lives and Charlie’s Angels. But he was also a prolific creator and conductor of Jewish music, which is how he met Lowell Milken.
“Lowell was a member of Stephen Wise Temple in Los Angeles, where I’d written a number of choral pieces,” Isaacson recounts from his current home in Boynton Beach, Florida, his Brighton Beach swagger still intact at age 72. “He approached me after one performance and asked with genuine concern how all this wonderful music was going to be saved. I told him someone needed to identify and record the best, iconic examples. He immediately invited me to make a proposal to do just that.”
Initially, Isaacson focused on producing a set of 10 compact discs for sale. “We wanted something finite, so people could grasp the sweep of the 20th Century experience in simplest terms,” he explains. “I started to look for works written from when waves of Jews started arriving in America in the 1880s. Our first recording came out of the choir loft at Wilshire Boulevard Temple in LA – we gathered all this dusty music capturing the ornate, operatic style you’d hear in a synagogue at the turn of the last Century. It was a deeply sentimental mash-up of Edwardian English and high German music, set to arch biblical verses like ‘As the heart panteth.’”
From there, Isaacson wanted to record something illustrating the cultural leap that later transformed the Hebrew service into a mode that was contemporary and unmistakably American.
“There were various rock pieces, like the works of Cantor Ray Smolover, whose Gates of Freedom had been a hit in the 70s, and a pianist-scholar named Jose Bowen had done some interesting jazz prayers,” he says. “But Jon Klein’s concert still stood out to me as something powerfully original. It was more literate and inventive. I thought it was important to have an authentic jazz service showing the best of that American idiom and its connection with sacred music. The Israel piece fit perfectly into that spectrum. Plus, I thought Jon deserved a shot at redemption from how the original recording came out.”
It took Isaacson a bit of time to get going, however. Aside from his heavy commercial schedule and commissioned work, he’d recently formed the Israel Pops Orchestra and was traveling up and down the East Coast leading orchestral performances of popular Jewish folk tunes. He also had regular conducting gigs with the Hollywood Pops, where he was a founding director. And in 1990 he was given the daunting assignment to conceive a serial soundtrack for the new Museum of Jewish Heritage in lower Manhattan. “It was the first time a museum integrated music as part of its permanent displays – this was a particularly challenging job since some of the exhibits were graphic depictions of the Holocaust,” he says of the composite work, which was performed by the Israel Philharmonic.
When he finally reached out to Klein for the first time in early 1992 after nearly 25 years, Isaacson recalls, “It was as if Jon had been waiting for my call.”
Getting the Version He Wanted
Klein may have tried to bury any memory of the original recording, but he had continued to tweak his concert piece, at least for a while. In 1969, having graduated from Brown and preparing to begin teaching at Berklee, he performed the work at Temple Emanuel, rounding up the two singers from the original 1965 appearance, plus two Berklee scholarship students who had recently emigrated to the U.S. from the Czech Republic – Jan Hammer (piano) and George Mraz (bass), along with young Berklee alum, drummer Harvey Mason. All three would go on to achieve true jazz stardom. Although it was basically the same version he’d recorded in New York with Hancock, he felt he’d made improvements based on his own further study of arranging and harmony. “That’s one I wish we’d recorded,” Klein says wistfully.
Then the demands of a career took over. After a stint at Berklee (where his students included the guitarist John Scofield), he left in 1975, initially to score animated children’s films for schools and libraries, including a fantasy short called Hank the Cave Peanut and Captain Silas – still available on Amazon (“Watch Hank the Peanut lead a hunt to capture a wild fork! And admire the courage of Captain Silas, who crosses popcorn oceans in a sailing shoe”). He contributed to a popular PBS children’s series, The Infinity Factory, and joined a cover band in Boston, playing keyboards in clubs and at functions six nights a week, and even appeared on several disco albums. He wrote jingles and incidental music for TV ads selling Raleigh bicycles and girl scout cookies, and performed with a fellow Brown alumnus named Susan Bennett, a sometime jazz singer and commercial voice-over who later secured her place in popular culture as the comforting voice of Apple’s Siri.
He also produced several other Jewish scores, including a piece called “Sacred Times and Seasons” commissioned by a synagogue in Brooklyn. (Klein maintains a modest personal web site with a sampling of some of his work.)
In 1989, Klein returned to Berklee as an associate professor in film scoring, confident in his chops and starting to think about revisiting the Israel service. “I’d learned so much about arranging during those years, even if the basic structure and melodic core of the work was the same,” he says. “When Michael Isaacson called me out of the blue in 1992 offering to make a new recording, I felt ready to give it another try. Michael had become a big-deal Hollywood composer. I was excited to take a fresh pass at the work for his new archival project. He’d been present for the earlier record and knew it had defects, so I trusted he’d let me get it right.”
This time, Klein would get to call his own shots. He began by creating a Version 3 of the service, with four Berklee-trained singers (two males, two females), double woodwinds and a trombone added for a deeper sound. He reharmonized the vocal parts, adjusted the keys and recruited a full Berklee lineup of musicians, including Michael Rendish, a fellow pianist from the film department, and trumpeter Herb Pomeroy, one of the school’s most revered instructors, whom Klein calls “the greatest musical influence in my life.” And despite being a more polished player, “I definitely wasn’t going to perform on this one,” he says.
“Can Finally Stand to Listen to It”
Taking several months to put the new elements in place – including ample rehearsal time – Klein booked a studio on Boylston Street near Fenway Park in late April to record the group’s effort, with Isaacson on hand to gently guide the session.
“I sat in the booth and made some suggestions but this was Jon’s baby,” Isaacson recalls. “He was mature enough to put his ego aside and place the piece first. And he did an absolutely wonderful job, with people who were well prepared and who worked well together.
“I remember on break saying this was pretty different from Herbie and Thad Jones, but that was the point,” he continues. “It was a more coherent, unified work now – the singers had gorgeous diction and knew the Hebrew. To me, that’s the secret success of the re-record – the vocals have real heart and soul, and weren’t going through the motions from a score sheet. The whole piece seemed more considered and truer to Jon’s original conception of a jazz service that was devout and yet had an improvisational feel. I was proud to have been part of it.” (In a side note, Isaacson mentions he forfeited his original copy of Hear, O Israel – “I lent it to Jerry Richardson when he was playing on one of my soundtrack recordings in the mid-70s, and he never gave it back to me!” he says.)
The studio do-over could have stood on its own, but sometime later Klein felt a few bits of the original would fit well as segues and intros for the reprise recording. “The Union for Reform Judaism said we could use about five minutes from the 1968 album without paying licensing fees,” he says. “That was plenty to work with, since the parts I thought worth preserving were some of the trio portions with Herbie, Ron and Grady Tate. I selected four excerpts and wove them in to complete the recording.” Even for the untrained ear, it’s not hard to detect just where those parts come in – check out opening bars of the Sh’Ma, Mi Khamokha and the finger-popping Torah Service, as well as the piano solo is Adoration to hear Hancock’s unmistakable contributions to the Milken Archive, alongside the “Jonathan Klein Jazz Ensemble.”
Charlie Morrow, who produced the 1967 session, takes issue with Isaacson and Klein’s view that the vocalists on the original weren’t harmonized with the project – either from a jazz or Jewish perspective. “I chose Antonia Lavanne because she had lived in Israel for years before coming to New York – she spoke fluent Hebrew, was a spiritual person and deeply Jewish,” he says in her defense. Of her fellow vocalist Phyllis Bryn-Julson, he adds, “Phyllis has command of multiple languages, which she performs with comprehension and stylistic integrity. The notion that these two versatile singers were mouthing Hebrew phonetics without comprehension is simply wrong.” Morrow adds that both Lavanne and Bryn-Julson had no problem getting into a jazz groove. “We collectively went for a Swingle Singers approach,” he recalls, referencing a popular 60s vocal ensemble from France known for their jazzified renderings of Bach cantatas and other classical compositions.
Still, Jonathan Klein never doubted the superiority of the re-recorded Miliken version. “Everything clicked – the caliber of the players and their interplay with the singers, the pacing, even the keys we chose. Herb Pomeroy gave the ultimate compliment to the new work, calling every note perfect,” he says. “I could finally stand to listen to it.”
Strangely, it took nearly 20 years for anyone else to say the same.
Saved from the Vault in 2011
When he joined the Milken Archive as curator in 2009, Jeff Janeczko faced a sizable task. Starting in 2003, the archive had issued 50 CDs (which sold more than 300,00 copies) and produced a popular syndicated radio show and podcast called “American Jewish Music from the Milken Archive,” hosted by actor Leonard Nimoy. But half of the collection had yet to be released, and the Archive’s leadership – wary of a changing music industry – had lost interest in producing costly CDs. In addition to its catalog of newly recorded works, the Archive had also grown an extensive collection of photographs, videos and oral histories. It was Janeczko’s challenge to bring all of it seamlessly onto the web.
“Hear, O Israel wasn’t among the works that made it to CD even though it was one of the first pieces recorded, so unfortunately it ended up sitting in the vault for a number of years,” Janeczko explains from his primary office in Seattle. “There was nothing sinister about that – it was a reflection of how the archive grew as the music industry was shifting from physical product to digital content.”
Janeczko wasn’t a jazz maven but he had an appreciation for improvised music – his doctoral thesis focused on Jewish musicians in New York’s avant garde scene, principally those working in what he calls “John Zorn’s orbit.”
“I was drawn to Jonathan’s concert and its back story as soon as I learned about it, and felt it had a significant place in illustrating the confluence of American music and Jewish culture, which was our mission to showcase,” he says.
Klein’s Israel re-recording was combined with several other genre-bending recordings the archive had made over the years for a series ultimately entitled “Swing His Praises: “Jazz, Blues and Rock in the Service of God.” First released on September 1, 2011, it included a pair of biblical-inspired choral cantatas by Dave Brubeck called The Commandments and The Gates of Justice; a Broadway-sounding Kiddush originally composed in 1946 by Kurt Weill on commission from New York’s Park Avenue Synagogue; Psalmistry, the reworking of a family Torah service by theatrical composer Jack Gottlieb; and a piece by prominent cantor-composer Charles Davidson called The Hush of Midnight, a reimagining of the daily prayers that fall between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. More selections would be added in ensuing years. Even with the presence of the renowned Brubeck, Klein’s Hear, O Israel was the most overtly jazz work in the group.
Each recording got its own web page and liner notes, many written by the archive’s artistic director Neil Levin, a noted scholar of Jewish music as well as a respected choral conductor. For Israel, Klein was given chance to make a fresh artistic statement about the work.
A portion of the notes brings some high-minded perspective to his original intent:
As Levin writes, “These recorded excerpts…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.”
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.
Levin picks up the thread:
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.
Yet, Klein adds something that once again belies his disavowal of the Version 1 recording.
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.
Did the archive lose something valuable by not having a separate place for the original recording, rather than a scant five-minute tease woven into the second? Janeczko is politic in his response. “Something definitely happened in 1967 that was unique and of a particular moment, and it was different than what happened in 1992,” he says.
“I haven’t heard everything in Jewish jazz, but I think there’s a clarity in artistic vision in the latter album that wasn’t present in the ’67 session, with all respect to the amazing talent assembled that day,” he adds. “The singers didn’t mesh aesthetically and the arrangements are night and day. The Milken version may be one of the more successful recordings bringing Hebrew texts and prayer into a contemporary setting.”
Of course, there was still the matter of the interloper.
“I Should Have Called Dorothy”
Pulling out my copy of Hear, O Israel recently, I discover some notes and phone numbers hastily written across the inner sleeve. In my excitement of acquiring this lost gem in 2002, I had what I thought was the brilliant idea of arranging a commercial re-release and tried to secure rights to the 1968 material.
I reached out to Klein at Berklee, but retreated when I detected his discomfort with the original recording. I located producer Raoul Ronson, who coincidentally had an office around the corner from mine on Manhattan’s Upper West Side; however, his files were a hoarder’s mess and he struck me as a difficult partner (Ronson died in 2005). I had no clue then as to the roles of either Michael Isaacson or Charlie Morrow since neither man’s name was on the LP, and Jerry Newman had died years earlier. I did manage a chance, impromptu meeting with Herbie Hancock at the Essex House Hotel but he exhibited his famous disinterest in mining his past work. Herbie politely referred me to several contacts at his then-label Verve – but they registered an unequivocal blankness.
I should have called “Dorothy.” Which is how Jonny Trunk beat me to it, and the Milken Archive as well.
A London-based music writer/blogger and DJ with enormously broad taste, Trunk founded his own label in 1995, not to produce original recordings but to rescue exotic work that would otherwise be lost to the ages, a sort of Milken Archive for the wildly eclectic and esoteric. Among his catalogue offerings are tapes by BBC “radiophonic artist” John Baker, old British advertising jingles, retro cha-cha and rhumba performances, and CDs by underground jazz drummer/composer Basil Kirchin. He has a fondness for sound effects and weird film music, including the soundtrack for the 1973 porn classic Deep Throat, for which he strikes a spirited defense. “For me, it is a unique aural experience,” he writes. “It has everything. Incredible musical moments mixed with frightfully bad bits, but that’s charm for you.” Trunk’s web site, with its micro fonts and bottomless links, looks like it came from the hands of whoever designed the Drudge Report.
In 1999, a collector friend of Trunk’s named John Cooper lent him a copy of Hear, O Israel – Trunk writes that “at the time I was going through a jazz-meets-religion phase and it seemed an appropriate listen.” But it wasn’t until he revisited it a few years later that he says he was smitten: “With its Hebrew song and prayer mixed in with striking New York modern jazz I was totally captivated from the instant it started,” which were my sentiments precisely, though as Trunk points out, “I’m not Jewish either.”
Not bothering to track down the talent, Trunk knew exactly whom to contact regarding rights to the original album. In his telling, “I ended up speaking to a lovely woman called Dorothy in New York. I explained to her what I did here in London, and that I’d like to issue the recording. She said, ‘You mean the jazz?’ I said, ‘Yes, I mean the jazz,’ to which she suggested I go right on ahead and do it.”
Dorothy, it turns out, was Dorothy Walrond, the longtime administrative assistant at the Union for Reform Judaism (formerly the Union of American Hebrew Congregations) – she retired in 2013 after 50 years on the job, having started one month after arriving in New York in 1963 from her native Panama. And Trunk’s account isn’t far off. Paul Reichenbach, the URJ’s Director of Camping and Israel Programs, vividly recalls Dorothy coming to him and fellow URJ executive Daniel Freelander sometime in 2008 for advice on how to respond to an unusual request.
“I absolutely remembered Hear, O Israel – I was in high school when it was recorded but in the early 1970s I had become co-director of the NFTY camp in Warwick, New York and there were several cartons of the album stored in our canteen,” Reichenbach says. “I can still picture that soupy red cover and wondered how anyone got these All-Star jazz musicians to make a NFTY record of Jewish prayers, though I later learned it was thanks to our own Dave Davis.” Unfortunately, he adds, the camp was flooded at some point and the LPs were most certainly ruined and thrown away.
“When Dorothy told us about this fellow Trunk calling from England, I remember thinking, ‘This is odd, this is interesting,’” Reichenbach continues. “But there seemed no reason to be restrictive. Did he pay us? Pay for what? We didn’t see any financial value in it and didn’t even have a copy of the master tapes. He was simply asking permission to re-issue this wonderful 40-year-old music. We were thrilled someone was interested after all that time.”
Although Trunk didn’t tinker with the recording, the “second generation” red cover photo and cursive typography bothered even his kitschy aesthetic. His account of searching for a suitable update is priceless:
So, I started looking for alternate images. I looked far and wide, at antique fayres, Judaica auctions, photo libraries and anywhere else I could think of and failed miserably to get anywhere even after months. I looked for good shots of Synagogues, for interesting Rabbi photos or paintings, always seeking anything that would give the sleeve a religious feel but still maintain a jazz edge. In the end I settled for a slightly abstracted Hanukkah Lamp, which although has nothing to do with Friday night prayers, has an instant and recognisable connection with the Jewish faith.
A decade later, Trunk is pleased to have acquired the album but admits it was no trophy economically. “It was worthwhile musically, but not financially,” he writes in an email from London. “It got very little interest from the press. I thought (and still think) it’s an important recording, but then again it is jazz and no one really gives a fig about that.” He estimates he sold less than 500 CDs and records and “gave a lot away.”
Klein was none too happy that Trunk’s release of the original pre-empted the Milken remake – he regards the Brit’s label as a cheap site for selling “nostalgia,” and underscores in a Milken podcast that the re-issue “was not put out with my blessing.”
Trunk almost returns the favor. Asked if he’s ever heard the Milken version, he replies, “No, but I will have a listen. I understand he doesn’t much like the original.”
Dated but Never Old
I had just turned 14 in March of ’68 when Hear, O Israel had its limited release, often joining my parents for Friday evening services at our synagogue in Pittsburgh – as quiet in our community of Squirrel Hill as it was in Worcester, Mass.
I remember sitting in the cozy Ronsebloom chapel at our Tree of Life shul, fascinated by the disembodied operatic voices of the choir floating down like spirits from a curtained sound booth high above the bema and our elderly rabbi and cantor. With their old-world inflection and passion for the prayers that otherwise sat on the page, the choir added an unseen, eerie presence to our service.
It was around this period that I also began tuning in to our local FM jazz station, where I would soon be hooked on a different musical frequency than most of my friends – Goodbye Beatles, Stones and Dave Clark Five, and Hello Oscar Peterson, Les McCann, Ahmad Jamal and Herbie Hancock.
I’m certain part of my attachment to the original Hear, O Israel is that the album transports me back to that time, when synagogue still seemed mysterious and otherworldly and jazz so fresh and full of discovery. I can recognize the technical improvements that came with the Milken makeover in ‘92, but it sounds a bit canned and flat compared to the swirl of feeling and lyricism that bursts from that first recording with Hancock, Rabbi Davis and those female singers oddly coming together, sparked by Jonathan Klein’s vibrant score and the tight support from the rest of the band. Maybe it’s dated, but it never gets old – and the very aspects that grated on Klein make me embrace the original as the far stronger work.
Tell Jonathan that Herbie says “Hi”
I know from our previous “meet-up” years earlier that Hancock has limited memory of the Israel recording. Or does he? I begin to wonder after receiving a photo Rabbi Davis sends me – it’s a copy of the reissued Trunk CD with a bold greeting autographed across the plastic cover: “Happy Birthday Rab!! Herbie Hancock.” It seems Herbie’s secret album may not have been so forgotten after all.
Thus, after many weeks of trying to make contact, I am happily surprised to get a call one afternoon in mid-February from Herbie’s daughter Jessica, asking if I still want to speak with her dad. Of course, I do! She cautions he may not have much to share about the recording – it’s been so long, other people have asked to no avail.
“Well, I never forgot I did the album – even if I don’t recall a lot about the session itself,” Hancock explains from his office in Hollywood. “I was just doing so much during that period, living in New York, working every day, every week. It was a very important time for me because I was still associated with Miles but also exposed to so many new influences and getting ready to go off on my own. I know the record was for a limited audience, so I never really had chance to take it in after we made it.” As he talks, more lights begin to turn on.
“I remember the composer was a young guy and this was his first time in the studio – and he was very sincere about his work, which included these wonderful opera singers and speaking parts in Hebrew. It was definitely the first and probably only time I ever did a record with a rabbi!” He laughs at the thought. In a few years Hancock would form a lifelong connection to Buddhist chanting, but even at 27 he says, “I felt I was already becoming a spiritual person, and here was this music that was connected to the Jewish faith, and I hadn’t experienced anything like that before.
“So, even though it may have seemed like a one-off job, I could tell that the work was coming from this young composer’s heart and wasn’t just another thing to do like many other albums we had lined up back then,” he continues. “And I felt it would be a good thing to expose myself to something I wasn’t familiar with – that’s the only way you can grow as a musician and as a person. I know we were squeezed for time but I was happy to accommodate this project because it was so different and had a spiritual component. Exploring his music, even for just that one day, I’m sure gave me a slight leg up for the next thing.” Indeed, he agrees it could well have carried over to what he was about to do so soon afterward on Speak Like a Child. Hancock figures he made a couple of hundred dollars from his effort that December day, unaware of the dividends his performance created for others in years to come.
When I tell him that Klein was displeased with the record and its mistakes, Herbie asks how old he is now. “Wow, he’s almost 70?” asks the pianist, who himself turned 78 in April and is currently wrapping a new album, his first in eight years. “Tell Jonathan I said Hi and that maybe he’d want to go back and listen to it once more, with old ears. Sometimes the best parts are in the mistakes. He may feel better about it now.”
Allan Ripp runs a press relations firm in New York.
An abridged version of this article originally appeared on Tablet posted April 11, 2018: http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-arts-and-culture/music/257216/making-and-remaking-a-jewish-jazz-masterpiece
A 10-minute docu-video about the making of "Hear, O Israel" prompted by this article was produced by the Milken Archive
Archive (thanks to Jeff Janeczko and Grant Gotschall) and posted in late August 2020: