When it comes to exploring interesting music, this week is good for the Jews.
Tonight, Josh Kun presents “Black Sabbath: The Secret Musical History of Black Jewish Relations” at the JCC East Bay, a mind-expanding excursion into little known territory where African-American artists interpreted Jewish liturgical and secular Yiddish material. The director of USC’s Popular Music Project, Kun is an incisive critic and scholar who is a founding member of the Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation, which compiled and produced the multimedia presentation “Black Sabbath” that ran last year at the Contemporary Jewish Museum.
On Sunday, Cal Performances presents Abraham Inc., a collaboration spearheaded by clarinetist David Krakauer, trombonist and bandleader Fred Wesley and accordionist and beat architect Socalled. The Montreal-based Socalled (aka Josh Dolgin) grew up grooving to Wesley’s insistently funky riffs on classic James Brown tracks sampled by hip hop artists, and he arranged a meeting in 2006 between Krakauer, a frequent creative partner, and Wesley.
The project first attracted widespread attention with a 2008 Carnegie Hall performance at the Apollo Theater as part of a celebration of James Brown’s 75th birthday. The group has honed a raucous sound that blends and juxtaposes klezmer, funk and hip hop. For the Zellerbach concert, Abraham Inc. features a stellar cast including Michael Sarin (percussion), Jerome Harris (bass), Sheryl Bailey (guitar), Allen Watsky (guitar), Freddie Hendrix (trumpet), and Brandon Wright (tenor saxophone).
Are there precedents for Abraham Inc.? Just ask Kun. He played in instrumental role in uncovering tracks for “Black Sabbath,” a beautifully produced CD that includes cross-fertilized jazz gems like Billie Holiday swinging “My Yiddishe Momme,” Cab Calloway wailing on “Utt Da Zay,” and Johnny Mathis crooning “Kol Nidre,” the lamenting Aramaic prayer that opens Judaism’s most solemn and holy service on Yom Kippur.
“If you didn’t know it was Cab Calloway singing, you’d think, that cantor’s got the most amazing band of all time,” said David Katznelson, a founding member of the Idelsohn Society. “He had a sense of the cantorial wail, and incorporated it right into ‘St. James Infirmary.’ Billie’s voice is perfect singing ‘My Yiddishe Momme’ in a sorrowful way, and at the same time she’s reaching out to another community.”
Created by Kun, Kaztnelson, Roger Bennett, and MySpace Music honcho Courtney Holt, the Idelsohn Society has produced a series of events, exhibitions and concerts highlighting overlooked facets of Jewish American culture, like “Mazel Tov, Mis Amigos,” a recreation of the classic 1961 album featuring Latin jazz luminaries interpreting traditional Jewish tunes.
Dedicated to uncovering forgotten forms of Jewish musical expression, the society scored another record bin coup reissuing Irving Fields’ pioneering Latin klezmer album “Bagels and Bongos,” which sold more than two million copies after its 1959 release. Now Abraham Inc. is writing a new chapter in a book full of unexpected twists.
Andrew Gilbert lives in west Berkeley and covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and KQED’s California Report.
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