No Jazz Fest Shabbat? No problem! Buy Touro’s CD or digital download
By ALAN SMASON, Exclusive to the CCJN
Last year, for the first time in three decades, the Touro Synagogue Jazz Fest Shabbat was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As the past year dragged on and the Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines were still in emergency-use FDA trials, it became evident to Touro Synagogue Cantor Kevin Margolius he would have to make another tough call on behalf of the Reform temple to once again cancel the event out of a preponderance of safety for its members, the public and the musicians who might perform there.
As the cantor of Touro Synagogue, the Jazz Fest Shabbat service is Margolius’ domain. Such has it been with all previous cantors commencing from Jazz Shabbat founder Cantor Steven Dubov of blessed memory more than 30 years ago to intervening Cantors Seth Warner, Jamie Marx, Billy Tiep and David Mintz.
“We knew we wouldn’t be able to do a lot of the things that we do during the course of a year,” Cantor Margolius told the CCJN in an exclusive interview. Not only would the Jazz Fest Shabbat have to be cancelled, but so, too, would the temple’s annual fundraiser.
“So we decided in place of our annual fundraiser – which is a sit down-dinner – and in honor of Jazz Fest Shabbat, we would embark on this project to record some of the music from the service.”
The six-month project began in earnest in October with Margolius and his volunteer team creating a list of featured artists from previous Jazz Fest Shabbats. Those that made the short list were trumpeter Kermit Ruffins, singer John Boutte, saxophonist Aurora Neland, guitarist and violinist Louis and Andre Michot of the Lost Bayou Ramblers, clarinetist Dr. Michael White and accordionist Bruce “Sunpie” Barnes.
In addition to the list of stars, Margolius knew he would have to enlist the services of Panorama Jazz Band, the core group of musicians who have formed the backbone of the accompanists led by Ben Schenck.
And Jazz Fest Shabbat would not be the same without the choral work of the Touro Synagogue Choir singing backing vocals. Margolius put out the word of the project and 20 of the choir members signed up.
Rehearsals were held over Zoom with all the players during the time when the vaccines were first being dispensed. The recording sessions began in earnest at Esplanade Studios in February with individuals recording solo in isolated recording booths. The sessions were mixed and the music was sent off to be made into compact discs and to be available as completed digital downloads to serve as an ongoing fundraiser for Touro.
The CDs arrived on Wednesday in time for distribution tonight at a special outdoor party for album patrons at the synagogue. Music is being provided by the Panorama Jazz Band, while a special Jazz Fest Shabbat dinner prepared by Saba Restaurant will allow patrons to share in a common meal.
Touro Synagogue’s special Jazz Fest Shabbat services tonight will stream over Facebook Live beginning at 7:30 p.m. and will feature the cantor singing live to instrumental tracks from the album.
The synagogue has also put together another side project for those wishing to recall past Jazz Fest Shabbat glory. Margolius arranged to have three of the synagogue’s former cantors – Seth Warner, Billy Tiep and Jamie Marx – record themselves so that the online audience would be able to hear and see them perform again. “They recorded video and audio from their respective homes,” Margolius explained. “I’m going to be singing live to the instrumental tracks…during the service. People will get a taste of the album and the sound, but we’re not quite at a place where we can get together in the sanctuary as we usually would.”
This will give the online audience an opportunity to experience the album, but also to enjoy a live concert at the same time, he noted.
Now those that want to enjoy the experience of a Jazz Fest Shabbat whenever they are in the mood will have that option.
“It’s something that’s been on my mind for a while now. This is such an incredible event, so important in the life of our congregation, but it happens for two hours a year and then it’s done,” he said. “We thought it would be nice to have a way to share a little bit of what this service is about beyond that two-hour window within the walls of our synagogue.”
Many people who have not been able to attend a Jazz Fest Shabbat service previously will now have the ability to enjoy the service, the cantor added.
The album will be available through the Touro Synagogue website as well as streaming downloads on Pandora and Spotify. The cost of the compact disc and the digital downloads will be $18 with $3 for shipping the CDs.
Margolius also credited the producer of the album, one of his congregants, Donnie Markowitz, an accomplished musician and Academy Award winner for Best Original Song (“The Time of My Life” from “Dirty Dancing”). “He was incredible during this process and we worked very closely together,” the cantor acknowledged.
“This year needed to be something much more than a holding pattern,” he continued. “When we were thinking about what we were going to do with our time this year it was so important to say ‘If we can look back on this year at Touro Synagogue in the future, are we going to see something that is not just resilience through a pandemic, but also something we can be happy with on its own merits?'”
Another aspect to this special album, the cantor pointed out, is that many of the musicians involved had not played before an audience or for others since the onset of the pandemic. A cancelation of Jazz Fest Shabbat for a second year was not a prospect about which many musicians were keen.
“It made me really think about these musicians that we engage for this every year,” the cantor concluded. “That is an iconic part of our city that has been disproportionally impacted and this was a way to also continue working with these musicians and throwing some work their way and doing something really neat for our congregation in the process.”