PHOTOS: JCMI and all that jazz – Congregation mixes musical styles for innovative service

“I’ve never sung any jazz before,” said Hari Jacobsen. “This will be a baptism by fire, even though we don’t have baptism in Judaism. You just jump in, even if you don’t know how to swim.”

With two degrees in music from the famed Juilliard School, Jacobsen is no stranger to music. But her training and experience are in the cantorial tradition of Jewish worship. Friday evening, she stepped out of her comfort zone, singing a “Jazz Shabbat” service before a capacity crowd of congregants at the Jewish Congregation of Marco Island (JCMI).

Jacobsen selected two experienced jazz artists to accompany her for the jazz Shabbat. Lucille Gaita, playing the piano, also created many of the arrangements for the 15 pieces performed during the service. A former member of the JCMI congregaition who used to play for the temple’s traditional services, she is very familiar with the music.

“These are all Jewish liturgical pieces,” said Jacobsen. “After I spent a lot of my discretionary budget for arrangements, I still wanted something different, and Lucille came through magnificently.”

Rounding out the ensemble, Kevin Mauldin is principal bassist for the Naples Philharmonic Orchestra, and a member of their new jazz orchestra. His solid bass lines underpinned the music, allowing Gaita and Jacobsen to step out front, musically.

This was a religious ceremony, not a club performance, though, and Jacobsen stood to the rear of the stage at JCMI, where she could see her accompanists. Although Jacobsen, who is the regular cantorial soloist, said she was going to caution congregation members that singing along might be difficult, many did just that, chanting along with the Hebrew words.

While tunes such as “Yism’chu HaShamayim” and “Ahavat Olam” may not have made the Hit Parade, the songs were well known to this audience, even if the musical settings were quite different. The music, said bassist Mauldin, was more jazz-inspired than straight jazz, although jazz is a very broad term in any event. When a listener compared the style to Gershwin, and Vince Guaraldi of “Linus and Lucy” fame, the instrumentalists agreed that was as good a description as any.

Rabbi Edward Maline dispensed with a full-length sermon for the occasion, but did offer prayers and make remarks at several points during the service. He drew a parallel between the Biblical Exodus, and the modern exodus now taking place in Libya.

“People are leaving a dictatorship that has controlled their lives for generations,” he said. “These things are still happening today.”

The songs were mostly in Hebrew, but some English language was included as well. The words spoke of a yearning for hope and peace, and a desire to more closely follow God’s commandments.

The jazz Shabbat made a big hit with its listeners. Every seat in the temple was filled, and extra seats were added in the meeting room behind. Nearly 200 attended altogether.

“We want to hear more of these,” said Cheryl Brownstein. “We could do blues, swing, Black spirituals.”

“It’s very inspirational to hear the ancient prayers with modern melodies,” said Rony Joel. “It gives you a chance to think, and really hear the words.”

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