Rabbinic Jazz


From the first, poetry was linked to music. Torah has always been chanted. The Greek bards accompanied themselves on instruments. The distinction between verse and song probably was an elastic one until the coming of the printing press. Whenever the disconnect took place, whatever its cause, poetry and music have continued to run alongside one another, two long railroad tracks that intersect frequently, if not constantly.

Just ask Jake Marmer.

“All poetry began as song, and jazz-and-poetry has always existed,” the Ukraine-born poet says with a grin.

Marmer, 32, is a relative newcomer to the intermittent jazz-and-poetry scene, and he is already enjoying a meteoric rise, performing his Jazz Talmud programs with reed player Rabbi Greg Wall, trumpeter Frank London and a rhythm section around town frequently, and to enthusiastic responses. Marmer’s next performance, on Dec. 24, will put him in a larger context as he reads his poetry with the music of the Ayn Sof Arkestra and Bigger Band, including Wall and London.

“Different stuff comes out of my writing when I’m working with music in mind,” Marmer says, slowly working his way through two sunny-side-up eggs. “I’m cognizant of what the musicians are doing, and it enables me to see different ways of reading. I see the poetry in terms of a jazz paradigm, as standards that I’m jumping off from.”

He recalls a small gathering at which he worked with just London, and the Hasidic New Wave/Klezmatics co-founder told him, “Just read, and I’ll be there. Your departure point should be your own reading.”

London’s choice of the phrase “departure point” is a telling one, speaking directly to Marmer’s overarching concept behind Jazz Talmud (which is also the title of his first collection, just published this month.)

“I had the idea to write out a series of poems in the cadences of Talmud, but about other things,” Marmer says, “And I had Greg and Frank on either side of me, like two commentators on either side of the text, like Gemara. They wrote some sketches, but mostly they’re improvising, going back and forth with each other. They are ‘rabbinic’ commentators, arguing or debating.”

The resulting process, he says, “is highly interactive,” and it has definitely had an impact on his non-music poetry readings, too.

“I try never to read the same poem the same way twice,” Marmer says. “I’ve also started to try to improvise also, reacting to the ideas that are coming from them. This is new for me, I’m still trying to think about this, how to improvise. In one respect, it’s very much like free jazz for me. There’s no fake book [a collection of lead sheets giving the melody and chords for standard tunes], no predetermined set of chord progressions to draw on.”

He readily allows that the exercise has affected his writing process, too.

“Working with these guys [Wall and London], I’ve written substantial stuff, just listening to them, talking to them,” Marmer says. He even has written one new piece while attending a Hasidic New Wave performance.

This kind of “in the moment” inspiration is part of what connects Marmer’s poetry to his spirituality. Although, as a Yeshiva University graduate, he is well-versed in the conventional paths of Jewish worship, he unhesitatingly endorses the words of poets who proclaim their art to be their spiritual practice.

“That’s absolutely true for me,” he says. “It doesn’t just include spirituality in it, it’s something different, it doesn’t use the language or the forms of worship necessarily; it’s past that. In a best-case scenario, it’s a direct encounter with the source.”

He pauses to ponder the weight of that statement, and then adds, “[Emmanuel] Levinas says ‘I don’t think there is God without the search.’ Art is the search. The moment, you don’t call it anything, just seeking to capture the moment. All really good poetry is about that search and the big questions: Who am I? Why do I exist? What am I doing here?”

Jake Marmer will be performing with the Ayn Sof Arkestra and Bigger Band on Dec. 24 at the Sixth Street Synagogue (325 E. Sixth St.) at 8:30 p.m., as part of the “Nittle Nacht (Xmas Eve) Radical Jewish Culture Blow-Out Benefit,” hosted by John Zorn. For more information, go to www.NittleNacht.eventbrite.com.