Jazz meets Jewish music in a Hanukkah jam

Holiday concerts are plentiful at this time of year, but few resemble the one that will unfold Sunday afternoon at Spertus.

By pairing jazz virtuoso Howard Levy with cantor Alberto Mizrahi, “One Incredible Hanukkah Jam” will embrace a vast sweep of music. From Hebraic chant to American swing, from Jewish prayers to music of Harpo Marx, the repertoire will stretch almost anyone’s definition of Hanukkah fare.

Which is precisely the idea.

“It’s definitely not your typical Hanukkah tunes that people have gotten accustomed to hearing,” says Chicagoan Levy, arguably the leading jazz harmonica player in the world, as well as a formidable pianist.

“Between me and Alberto, we cover a lot of bases.”

Indeed, Mizrahi — the widely admired cantor at Anshe Emet Synagogue, on the North Side — brings a scholar’s inquisitiveness to Jewish music from across the diaspora. Levy, meanwhile, stands as a musical polymath who has proven himself equally conversant in jazz, classical and world music genres.

So though the two will be sharing the Spertus stage alone, together they represent a broader range of musical traditions than far larger ensembles typically take on.

The question is whether Levy’s contemporary, jazz-oriented improvisations can coalesce with Mizrahi’s cantorial approach. To put it more directly: Can a jazz instrumentalist and a cantor speak the same musical language?

“Actually, we’ve been knocking around the world together for a number of years,” says Mizrahi, who has toured and recorded with Levy in various contexts, though infrequently as a duo.

“Howard has a real big heart and soul, and although his expertise is not Jewish music, he takes in everything he hears. …

“And remember, many cantors were influenced … by Broadway and Tin Pan Alley.”

And vice verse: Many Jewish composers have profoundly affected the course of American music. Harold Arlen — who composed the score for “The Wizard of Oz” and dozens of classic songs — was a cantor’s son. George Gershwin imbued landmark works such as “Rhapsody in Blue” and “Porgy and Bess” with Yiddish turns of musical phrase. And generations of Tin Pan Alley tunesmiths were children of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, the songwriters pouring the distinctive cadences of klezmer and Hebraic music into 32-bar song forms.

So the bonds between jazz and Jewish culture run deep, which augurs well for the Levy-Mizrahi Hanukkah soiree. Their worlds, says Levy, interrelate in subtler ways, too.

“There’s a lot of improvisation in Hazzanic singing,” explains Levy, referring to cantorial techniques.

“The best cantors can combine a very precise diction and … a very improvisatory and soulful expression. I would go so far as to say the cantors use a very bluesy style, which is very similar to the great blues singers.

“It’s something that’s such an ingrained part of Jewish culture that a lot of Jewish people don’t get to stand outside of it and see it.”

Or hear it. That’s part of what Levy and Mizrahi hope to make plain during their concert.

To Mizrahi, there’s another reason that Jewish music dovetails so felicitously with jazz and other genres.

“The story really is that Jews (are) Middle Eastern people whose music still retains elements of the Middle East,” says the cantor. “Then we went into exile to almost every country in the world.

“And in this exile, we were influenced by — and also influenced — the music of those countries. …

“The exile sort of afforded us the opportunity to meld and fold our music in with other people. So we can do jazz because jazz is American and we’re American.”

Even so, neither Mizrahi nor Levy knows exactly what’s going to happen once they take the stage and begin to improvise.

Which what jazz is all about.

Also worth catching

“Jazz Christmas”: Pianist Willie Pickens’ annual holiday concert this year will feature one of the most compelling melodists in jazz, trumpeter Tom Harrell, plus Chicago singer Ava Logan. As always, Pickens’ trio will drive the proceedings. 8 p.m. Friday at Hyde Park Union Church, 5600 S. Woodlawn Ave.; 773-363-6063 or hpuc.org

Bob Mintzer Organ Trio: He’s perhaps best known for his long-running work with the Yellowjackets, but tenor saxophonist Mintzer also stands as a formidable soloist in his own right. He’ll lead a trio staffed by two Chicagoans: with Dan Trudell on the Hammond B-3 organ and Joel Spencer on drums. 9 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday at the Green Mill Jazz Club, 4802 N. Broadway; $12; 773-878-5552 or greenmilljazz.com

James Sanders’ Conjunto: Violinist Sanders has constructed a fascinating Latin jazz ensemble that draws on Afro-Caribbean traditions but also ventures into contemporary idioms. The band includes Papo Santiago on vocals. 10 p.m. Friday at Katerina’s, 1920 W. Irving Park Rd.; $10; 773-348-7592 or katerinas.com


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