It’s not everyone who listens to Dayenu at the seder table and automatically reinvents it as a jazz tune, even, perhaps, as a jazz mambo. But that’s exactly what happens when Matt Chertkoff of Hasbrouck Heights hears a catchy tune at the seder, or in shul, or — for that matter — practically anywhere else.
“Sometimes I sit there and whatever music I hear, I hear it in a different way,” said Mr. Chertkoff, who will showcase his melodies on January 10 at the JCC of Fort Lee/Congregation Gesher Shalom. Mr. Chertkoff, who is a member of the congregation, said that he enjoys bringing different musical genres to the synagogue.
A program of the shul’s CSI Scholar Fund, “Kosher Jazz” — a narrated concert featuring Mr. Chertkoff and a four-piece combo, including piano, drums, bass, and guitar — will demonstrate how “Yiddish songs, pop tunes that speak to the Jewish experience, and religious melodies morph easily into the jazz medium,” he said. (The scholar fund is named for Congregation Sons of Israel, a synagogue in Leonia that merged with Gesher Shalom in 2011.)
“I’ve loved music since I was a kid,” Mr. Chertkoff said. “There are so many beautiful melodies in shul, and my parents sang on family trips. When I hear a melody I like, I hear it in my head in a more sophisticated, jazz-like version.” He always wanted to be a professional guitarist, he added, so he studied at the University of Miami, which, he said, has a particularly good jazz conservatory. “I stayed there and played professionally, and then I moved here.
“All music is connected,” he continued. He pointed to “Hava Nagila,” a melody whose authorship is unknown and whose tune is borrowed from another song. “All music is influenced by other music. People put their own stamp on it. It develops over time.” When he hears a catchy melody, “I start humming it and then reinterpret it when I get home. It’s a natural process.”
Mr. Chertkoff said he plays with a lot of different groups, and even the membership of his own group changes. “It makes it interesting,” he said, noting that the changes necessarily bring different influences. For example, having played a few times with Joshua Nelson — who sings Jewish songs in a gospel style and who Mr. Chertkoff brought to the Fort Lee synagogue — he has adopted aspects of Mr. Nelson’s style and may use one of his songs at the January 10 concert.
That concert, he said, will include songs, their history, and an explanation of “how we’re changing them, our approach.” Styles may include mambo, samba, gospel, fast waltz, uptempo, ballad, or a New Orleans beat. “They’ll be based on tunes people will recognize,” he said. “We’ll explain their origins, who wrote them, and how they’ve done it.” Otherwise, he said, people won’t understand the way he’s changed them himself .
In jazz, he said, “you are the composer, using the language of riffs. It will be a very neat concert because we’re covering religious songs and secular songs, some from Israel. There will also be Broadway tunes. And there won’t be just one or two beats. We’ll use a vast variety of styles. It will be different and refreshing.”
Mr. Chertkoff was born in Livingston, grew up in Ridgewood, and lives with his wife, Hemma, and their daughter, Kayla, 2½. He said that his daughter “sings and dances” to the music he plays, but he can’t guarantee that she’ll choose music as a profession.
Who: Matt Chertkoff and his four-piece combo will present
What: “Kosher Jazz,” a narrated concert
When: On January 10 at 1 p.m.
Where: The JCC of Fort Lee/Congregation Gesher Shalom, 1449 Anderson Ave., Fort Lee
Cost: Free and open to the public
Information: Call (201) 947-1735