Jazz pianist sheds new light on liturgical improv

Jazz pianist sheds new light on liturgical improv

Ridgewood concert to feature ‘Jewish music the way it is meant to sound’

David Schlossberg
David Schlossberg

Musician David Schlossberg wants his audience to find “a place beyond words” when they listen to his music.

“I want to transport them to a place where the music is carrying them and they can use it to get in touch with themselves,” Mr. Schlossberg, who will perform at Ridgewood’s Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center on March 25, said.

Whether he is performing or recording — “A Place Beyond Words” is the title of both the program and his CD — Mr. Schlossberg’s goal is to help people “shut out all the noise. They can use music as a place they can go to find peace. It’s not necessary to do anything but listen.” He’s not trying to be pretentious but simply sharing his own philosophy, he added.

Temple Israel has developed a noted concert series coordinated by chairs Marc Cantor, Tamara Freeman, and Nanette Rosenbaum. Ms. Freeman, who is a talented musician, arranges concerts of sacred music, and Mr. Schlossberg’s music is included in that category.

“David spins traditional Shabbat prayers and zemirot into imaginative, improvisatory jazz pieces for the piano,” Ms. Freeman said. “Listening to his music is like hearing Jewish music the way it is meant to sound; that is the magic, discipline, and authenticity of David’s craft.”

Describing the pianist’s interpretations of the prayers as “spiritual, soulful, emotional, and evocative,” Ms. Freeman said she met Mr. Schlossberg through Dr. Michael Kesler, the artistic director and producer of annual pre-Holocaust concerts at the East Brunswick Public Library. A Holocaust survivor, Dr. Kesler has pulled together a group of musicians to present the music of shtetls throughout Europe from before the Holocaust.

“His philosophy is that you can’t begin to fathom what was lost unless you know what came before it,” Ms. Freeman said, noting that she has participated in Dr. Kesler’s concerts for the past six years and that the library auditorium is always “packed.” Mr. Schlossberg has played in these concerts as well. “He takes melodies that are usually just [annotated] with chords and creates beautiful accompaniments,” Ms. Freeman said. “To gild the lily, he adds improvisatory intros that carry your heart away into that time and place.

“Each person hears, interprets, and feels music differently,” she continued. “The genius of Dave Schlossberg is that he stays true to the original melody, and you can hear whatever the liturgical melody is, right there” in the midst of the music. “He spins notes around these liturgical melodies, and you’re carried to the place where prayer is supposed to be.” Even people who know nothing about liturgy will be enchanted, she said. “He plays beautiful, charming music, and brings his sense of humor. You can’t help smiling.”

Mr. Schlossberg, who lives in Monroe Township, grew up attending Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick. “Seventeen years ago, the cantor there found out that I was a musician and asked me to substitute at folk services on Shabbat,” he said. “I found that I could improvise a bit,” he said. “Those kinds of services require more flexibility.”

These services were so successful that “the cantor, ever so slowly, asked me to do more things — not things that required high formality, such as High Holiday services, but events such as dinners and choir concerts.” Ultimately, he became the synagogue’s part-time accompanist, branching out to play for other synagogues and community choirs as well. Still in college, he found himself doing an increasing amount of work in Jewish venues and becoming heavily involved in the Jewish music world.

One of his gigs was playing at the American Conference of Cantors in Philadelphia, providing him with the opportunity to improvise in a service setting. The music was so well received that he was inspired to produce his CD, featuring liturgical music improvisations. “I’ve always been an improvisational pianist,” he said, noting that he had a good deal of experience in settings where he had to be versatile “and figure out how to accommodate people.” Being a regular synagogue attendee, and combining that with his creative style, “I developed a love for improvising on the melodies I heard every week.”

His method, he said, is to “choose a song that sounds beautiful, with melodies that leave open room for exploration — harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic.” He cited “Oseh Shalom” as one example. “Certain songs speak to me, based on their potential.” At his Ridgewood concert, Mr. Schlossberg will play selections from his CD, “but not exactly the same,” since he always improvises.

The music “feels like a painting to me, like a blank canvas I can draw on,” Mr. Schlossberg said. “I’m really only limited by my imagination. I feel a sense of freedom, of being an explorer, using what comes naturally to me to make something beautiful.” Rather than thinking of himself as especially talented, “I think, ‘Not really. It just makes perfect sense.’”

Who: Jazz pianist David Schlossberg

What: Will offer a program of liturgical music improvisations

When: On Sunday, March 25, from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m.; a festive reception will follow

Where: At Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center, 475 Grove St., Ridgewood

Cost: $18 per adult, $5 per student, children under 5 free

Reservations: Call  or email music@synagogue.org

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