Tikkun Magazine, July/August 2010
Word Jazz: Music and the Poetry of Rav Kook
by James Stone Goodman
We can sense the shared matrix of poetry and music in the rhythmic loam of language from which they both arose. Some of our languages preserve the connection in name: in Hebrew we use shirah to signify both song and poem, as if all song implies poetry and all poetry implies music.
It is no stretch, in a theoretical sense, to walk the bridge between poetry and music, but to accomplish it in a compelling way that elevates both the music and the poetry—well, that is tricky. I hear this sort of bridging on the new Tzadik Records CD, Ha'Orot: The Lights of Rav Kook, a collaboration between New York jazz group Greg Wall's Later Prophets and Rabbi Itzchak Marmorstein. For the music to complement the words, and the words to integrate around the music—this is rare.
Rabbi Avraham Itzchak HaCohen Kook (1865-1935) was one of the great lights of our tradition. He came to Israel in the early years of the twentieth century. He spent the World War I years in England, and later returned to Israel to become the rabbi of Jerusalem and then the first chief rabbi of the land of Israel, before the state was founded. He was a great teacher, a master of both Halachah (law) and Aggadah (lore), a practical man, a poet, and a mystic. He made a profound impact.
Rav Kook's poetry is a visionary poetry of traditional associations and allusions, of yearning, purity, return, a sense of brokenness, and a universality of spiritual reach and redemption. Itzchak has dedicated himself to be Rav Kook's interpreter, and joining him on this album is a stellar quartet that deeply respects the music of Rav Kook's poetry.
A solid rhythm track begins and ends the CD, a bluesy accompaniment that is not too stingy but does not usurp the place of the language. I love Dave Richard's bass playing throughout. The language floats and leaves room for saxophonist Rabbi Greg Wall to play over the top and reach. "It's the good that I desire," calls Itzchak, yearning, and its shadow echo follows in the mix.
Some of the tracks have a freer jazz accompaniment or even some electronics, always leaving space for the other instrumentalists. All the musicians—including Shai Bachar on keyboards and Aaron Alexander on drums—are wonderful and are featured well in the mix.
There is more room in some tracks than in others, a modal nod now and again from the saxophone to Eastern European musical rootedness. Itzchak declaims some of the poetry in English translation but mostly includes the original Hebrew so the listener has a sense of the music in the words. He also modulates his voice to suit the poetry. There is an easy mix of Hebrew and English throughout, often moving back and forth between languages.
There is room for words and music on this unique and stirring CD, some play in the mix and arrangements, an occasional freer jazz feel, and always a respect for the music of poetry and the poetry of music, honor to both.
It's a great way to experience the light of Rav Kook.
Rabbi James Stone Goodman serves Congregation Neve Shalom and the Central Reform Congregation in St. Louis, Missouri. He is a musician (five CDs) and a writer whose creativity can be found at www.stonegoodman.com.
Stone Goodman, James. 2010. Word Jazz: Music and the Poetry of Rav Kook. Tikkun 25(4): 29