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All You Can Eat

Paul Shapiro’s music is a buffet of treats

Alexander Gelfand
November 13, 2008

Essen, the title of the latest album by Paul Shapiro, means “to eat” in both German and Yiddish. And as the saxophonist, clarinetist and singer recently explained in a lexicographical aside from the stage of the Cornelia Street Café in lower Manhattan, it applies specifically to people. The word “fressen,” on the other hand, applies to animals. In German, using the word “fressen in connection with a person is considered vulgar or derogatory (they have an old saying, “Tiere fressen, Mensche essen””animals feed, humans eat). In Yiddish, however, it denotes nothing more than enthusiastic overeating. Shapiro knows something about both essing and fressing. This, after all, is a guy who is known around his own house as Chicken Man.

“Put a piece of chicken in front of me, and my wife starts to get sweaty if there are guests around,” Shapiro told me a couple of weeks after the show. “I sort of lose touch with reality, and before you know it, it’s all over the place. There isn’t much left on my plate except for some half-eaten bones. If there’s not enough napkins around, it can get very, very dangerous.” And not just for poultry. “I’m a great lover of food,” he says. “I’ve got a pretty wide palate, and I eat all kinds of ethnic foods.”

But Shapiro isn’t just a culinary gourmand; he’s a musical one, too. He’s even written a tune titled “Different Flavors” (“I like different flavors, yes I do…”) to express his love of variety in all things consumable, from soups to songs.

As a member of the Microscopic Septet in the 1980s and early 1990s, Shapiro was part of a small but vibrant community of jazz musicians who refused to submit to the narrow, neoconservative ethos of the day, and chose instead to celebrate the entire tradition, from early swing to the avant-garde. You can hear that joyous open-mindedness in all of Shapiro’s subsequent work, including his two previous albums for John Zorn’s Tzadik label, Midnight Minyan and It’s in the Twilight, which subject traditional synagogue melodies to a variety of treatments, from rhythm and blues to modal jazz.

Shapiro’s growing interest in Jewish music eventually led him to a pocket of repertoire from the 1930s and 1940s that occupies a fascinating middle ground between big band swing, Yiddish pop and early R&B. For the past several years, he has been presenting these finds, many of which take food as their theme, at Cornelia Street as part of his Ribs and Brisket Revue.

There are klezmer-inflected melodies like Benny Goodman’s “My Little Cousin” (based on the Yiddish tune, “Di Grine Kuzine”), and jivey, bluesy numbers like Henry Nemo’s “A Bee Gezindt,” which was sung by both Cab Calloway and Mildred Bailey”neither of whom, presumably, could resist a lyric that rhymes “Miller” with “schmiller”; Borscht Belt material like “Tsouris,” a shtick-laden Yinglish routine originated by the Barton Brothers, and the food-obsessed title track, a Billy Hodes bit that was later reworked by Lee Tully (né Kalman Naftuli), and which Shapiro tracked down among the 78-rpm records in the YIVO archives; and a couple of tunes by the late, great hipster Slim Gaillard: the frenetic “Matzoh Balls” and “Dunkin’ Bagels”, which Shapiro reworks as ultra-groovy new jack swing.

Many of these pieces illuminate the game of give-and-take that Jewish and African-American artists have played for generations, including “Utt-Da-Zay,” a Cab Calloway vehicle from 1938, which features mock cantorial gibberish by Revue singer Babi Floyd; and singer Cilla Owens’ earthy cover of blues singer Sophie Tucker’s Yiddishized cover of Jane Green’s “Mama Goes Where Papa Goes,” dating to 1923. “You listen to it and it’s very much a bluesy version, ’cause Sophie was really bluesy,” Shapiro says of Tucker’s rendition, which he also found at YIVO. “And yet it’s in Yiddish.”

The musical ancestry can get even more complicated. A couple of years ago, Owens brought in “Yes, My Darling Daughter,” a popular tune from the 40s sung by Adelaide Hall, among others. Audience members began coming to Shapiro between sets and telling him that the song was based on the old Yiddish tune, “Yuh Mein Tiere Tochter.” That was true, but it wasn’t the end of the story. “The funniest thing is, I played it last summer up at the National Yiddish Book Center, and [Jewish music scholar] Hankus Netsky was in the audience,” Shapiro says. “And he tells me afterwards, ‘Guess what — it’s really a Ukrainian folksong.’ That’s very typical; these melodies are popular and they get pulled into various musical families, and everybody shares.”

Shapiro casts many of these gems in the form of jump, a bouncy, jazzy precursor to R&B built on shuffle rhythms and boogie-woogie basslines that will be familiar to anyone who has heard Ray Charles’s early recordings or sampled the oeuvre of saxophonist Louis Jordan & His Tympani Five. He also weaves in bits of reggae and funk and bebop, all of which are deftly executed by pianist Brian Mitchell, bassist Booker King and drummer Tony Lewis. What stands out most, however”aside from the breadth of styles on display”is the consistent and strikingly well-integrated combination of serious musicianship and easy, lighthearted humor.

I have been to see the Revue more than once, and I have listened to Essen umpteen times, not just because of the novelty of the material or the intriguing relationships it reveals between various streams of American popular music; but because, as performed by Shapiro and his crew, it is endlessly entertaining.

Without committing to anything, Shapiro admits that there might be enough music for another album. To which I can only respond: Please, sir, can I have some more?

Listen to a clip of “Dunkin’ Bagel” by Paul Shapiro

Listen to an excerpt from Alexander Gelfand’s interview with Paul Shapiro

Listen to a clip of “Utt-Da-Zay” by Paul Shapiro

Alexander Gelfand is a writer and sometime jazz pianist. His work has appeared in many publications, including The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, The Village Voice, and The Forward.

Alexander Gelfand is a recovering ethnomusicologist, a sometime jazz pianist, and a former West African drummer. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Forward, and elsewhere.

Alexander Gelfand is a recovering ethnomusicologist, a sometime jazz pianist, and a former West African drummer. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Forward, and elsewhere.