Eugene Marlow is a remarkably busy fellow. A pianist, composer, educator, and author, among his many activities is leading the Heritage Ensemble, which performs jazz arrangements of Hebraic melodies. Most of the tracks here are new arrangements of tunes previously released on an earlier album, "Making the Music Our Own" (2006). New musicians and new ideas have led Marlow to undertake a fascinating project.
It seems that many jazz musicians these days don't want to repeat themselves. They seldom re-record a tune they've done before, except in a concert setting. But how many times did Basie or Ellington rearrange a song and try it again? The desire to innovate and the improvisational nature of jazz suggests that it should happen more often. Marlow is happy to do just that and the results are quite extraordinary.
Using Jewish music is not new to jazz. Elements of Jewish heritage have permeated popular music for generations, from Vaudeville to Broadway to rock and jazz. Jewish and non-Jewish composers have employed melodic structures, chords, and other elements of Hebraic (and other Middle Eastern and Jewish musics) either directly, or indirectly through Latin music (where its influence derives from the medieval Iberian Peninsula). Here the partaking is very direct using songs such as "Hatikva" and "Ata Hu Hashem," and giving them fine contemporary and Latin jazz arrangements.
The quintet works through nine tracks, giving each a fresh approach with enthusiasm and a high degree of musicianship. Marlow on piano shares much of the soloing with Michael Hashim, who alternates on alto and soprano sax, and the two take the lion's portion. However, Bobby Sanabria gets his share of drum solos, and the others take an occasional turn as well. The only vocal track, "Adon Olam," features the lovely voice of Rachel Kara Perez, taking a Latin turn in a heavily improvised piece. Neither frenetic nor overly relaxed, the group takes each beautiful melody in turn and works through its theme, explores its possibilities, and never overstays its welcome.
If you heard the Ensemble's earlier album with the same tunes, don't pass this one up. It really is quite different on many levels. To me, the solos have more punch, and there is a more sophisticated rhythmic flow and arrangement to the works. Collectively the album forms a conceptual whole that is very satisfying and worth finding.