Music Among the Tree Tops
When we walked in on Paul Shapiro he was in the middle of working on a musical score, and the ensuing discussion wasn’t so much about the Shapiros’ new apartment (he and his wife, Rachel, moved here in 2001, but Paul has lived much of the past 25 years in the downtown area), but of his music.
The exciting thing about Sax player and band leader Paul Shapiro, a graduate of McGill University in Montreal, is his ability to deal with his Jewish heritage the way jazz men have been dealing with everything else in the culture: by taking it apart, seeing what makes it tick and what makes it beautiful, and then putting it together his own way. And because he is both adventurous and talented, the result is often breathtaking in its sheer newness.
One of the cuts on his recently released CD, Midnight Minyan, is a good example. It is called Haftorah Prelude, haftora being a segment of Biblical reading which follows the main course of Torah reading in the synagogue on Shabbat and holidays. The Biblical segment is usually sung aloud to an elaborate and difficult tune, based on ancient notes invented around the fourth Century. The singing begins and ends with a lengthy blessing, sung to the same tune.
Shapiro strips the above segment of all its preconceived religious, historical and social notions, forcing it instead to live strictly by its odd rhythm and by the forceful staccato of the sax. The result is so brisk and unsentimental, that you don’t even begin to compare it with its liturgical origins, you just get drawn in.
How many brand-new musical experiences can one man generate? It appears that some of the industry’s top performers keep inviting Paul Shapiro to do more of the not-the-same. Lou Reed, Michael Jackson, Nyorican Soul, the Microscopic Septet and Brooklyn Funk Essentials have all craved his unique tenor sax input.
It was this penchant for invention which has brought Paul Shapiro to his most recent project, commissioned by the Museum of Jewish heritage downtown: writing a musical score for a 1925 full-length silent film, Edward Sloman’s His People, which tells the story of Lower East Side immigrants David and Rose Cominsky and their two sons: Morris, who is studying to be a lawyer, and Sammy, who is secretly becoming a boxer. Sloman's story is a kind of double Jazz Singer, with papa having Jewish ID issues with both his assimilating sons.
Looking over East Broadway through the lush treetops is arguably the optimal angle for a composer laboring to give a new lease on life to an 80 year old movie about Lower East Side Jewish immigrants. Paul has certainly found his comfort zone here. “We were getting tired of living on Ludlow Street, which was the perennial college campus,” he intimates. “We love the mix of the people here, we love that they come in all ages. We like being part of history in the most direct and personal way.”
They haven’t altered the apartment at all, other than paint one living room wall a dramatic red. They’re debating about breaking down the wall separating the living room from the kitchen. They’d get a great big space there, but the price would be the loss of a hidden breakfast nook.
For now, they like the spaciousness of the apartment, the well-designed glass doors to the porch, and more than anything else, they love the view. Especially this time of the year. Their building is ensconced right behind the newly renovated Seward Park public library, and the trees in the small park areas below surround their apartment so thickly, it feels like being in someone’s dream tree house.
Couldn’t think of a more pleasant place to play in the graceful summer we’ve been having...