Jazz group to cross cultural lines tonight at Collis

by Caroline McKenzie | 11/13/03 6:00am

American culture is, undeniably, attuned to perceiving certain things as "natural" pairings. For instance, what American doesn't think that peanut butter and jelly naturally go together?

But, for most, the pairing of African and Jewish musical traditions doesn't exactly ring this Pavlovian bell. In fact, it would be safe to venture that most people would think of these two musical cultures as being, if anything, strange bedfellows.

Not true, says Jewish-American jazz bassist David Chevan,and he should know. Chevan is one of the founding members of The Afro-Semitic Experience, a seven-piece jazz group that fuses African-American and Jewish musical traditions with an emphasis on spirituality. The Afro-Semitic Experience will be bringing their thumping acoustic jazz show to the Dartmouth when they will be playing a free gig in Collis sponsored by both the college Hillel and AAM groups.

"Jewish-American jazz is African-American jazz," said Chevan in an interview with The Dartmouth. "Much jazz comes from the Great American Songbook and many of the songs were written by Jewish composers in the early 1900s." Chevan cites the Gershwin brothers as examples, whose songs African-American musicians like Ella Fitzgerald later performed.

"That kind of fusion has always been present in the music," says Chevan.

He also notes that many of the musical traditions of today are conglomerates of musical components that are essentially different.

"Hip hop is an unnatural fusion, country and western is an unnatural fusion, even rock n' roll is an unnatural fusion," says Chevan.

Chevan has been playing with African-American pianist Warren Byrd for some time, even before the inception of The Afro-Semitic Experience. He says the fusion just came naturally to them. "We were at a gig and Warren started playing something and it clicked with me and I started playing something and it worked. One night he happened to be playing an old gospel tune and I knew it and said, 'What would happen if ... '"

But both see relations between groups of African-Americans and Jewish-Americans as having deteriorated during the past 20 years, specifically since the end of the civil rights movement.

"In terms of political affiliations, during the late 1960s Jewish and African Americans were working quite close with each other. But right now, civil rights is doing anything but moving forward I think one reason is because of the lack of coalitions between different groups," says Chevan.

Chevan also sees the present as being a crucial time for Jewish-Americans to be in tune with their religious identity. With the political turmoil raging in Israel, he finds that many Jewish-Americans are uncomfortable being labeled Jewish. He uses his music to express himself as a member of the Jewish-American community.

"You have to make a conscious choice to reveal who you are or conceal who you are. Many people in America are 'closet Jews' they don't know how to address [their Judaism] so they pass for Christian white Americans. It's politically incorrect to be Jewish as many people are critical of Judaism. It's very tricky especially if you have any leftist tendencies. How can you be liberal and support the state of Israel?" said Chevan.

As an outlet for such religious expression, the Afro-Semitic Experience is imbued with spirituality. Those who attend tonight's performance shouldn't expect to hear pop jazz tunes, but should instead be prepared to hear a melodic fusion of spiritual jazz with roots that lay equally within the gospel choir and the synagogue.

"We will do a little funk, some Jewish cantorial music, songs from the Jewish peace music, music from Islamic composers, gospel, some blues," Chevan said, "The Afro-Semitic Experience is a pretty wide path. It probably encompasses more than one might think at first.""We're a deeply spiritual band and if you are at all inclined, it's going to hit you on a very spiritual level," said Chevan.

Prepare to be moved -- if not to dance, then to thought.