JAZZ. Middle Eastern music. West African-inspired percussion. And the longest-running musical in Broadway history. It all comes together at Congregation Mickve Israel this weekend when an ensemble of musicians perform songs from Fiddler on the Roof.
The Sunday afternoon performance at Congregation Mickve Israel is not a theatrical one—rather, the concert highlights memorable numbers from the beloved musical with some fresh and surprising eclecticism.
Larry Dane-Kellogg, who handles many events at Mickve Israel, had the idea of pairing Fiddler on the Roof and jazz music.
“He approached me after doing the ‘Jews and Jazz’ concert last March, which was a really successful, sold-out show,” ensemble percussionist Ira Miller recalls. “And there was a performance of Fiddler on the Roof tunes over at the [Jewish Educational Alliance] in May last year. He wanted to do something similar, so a couple months later, he approached me and asked if I’d put a program together.”
To get the inspiration flowing, Dane-Kellogg shared an album of Fiddler on the Roof songs performed by Cannonball Addereley, released in 1964, with Miller. A prominent alto saxophonist in the 1950s and ‘60s, Addereley and his sextet took a bebop spin on hit tunes from Fiddler.
“At first we were thinking, ‘Yeah, let’s do straight-ahead jazz versions,’” says Miller. “But then I started thinking a little more: ‘Why don’t we do something a little different?’ They’re going to be jazz interpretations, but they’re going to be instrumental interpretations of the tunes.”
The ensemble has created a program that incorporates elements of jazz, Eastern European music, and Middle Eastern melodies and rhythms to create a Fiddler unlike any production you’ve ever heard.
“With my background in percussion, I have a lot of influence in my music from West Africa and the Middle East,” Miller explains. “I wanted to apply those elements to this performance to make it more interesting.”
Before heading out and purchasing his own Fiddler songbook, Miller, on a hunch, dialed his father to see if he had a copy of the beloved sheet music. Sure enough, his dad had an edition from the late 1970s, and Miller poured over it to see what could be kept and what could be embellished.
“I looked at those, and I pretty much took the melodies,” he says. “We’re playing the melodies pretty much verbatim. For instance, one of the most popular songs is ‘If I Were a Rich Man.’ I took that piece and we’re going to be playing the melody so people recognize it. The whole point is for people to recognize the tunes. But I wrote an intro to the song that’s going to be a little different and have a Middle Eastern vibe to it, just sort of introducing the melody, if you will.”
In addition to nine songs from Fiddler on the Roof, attendees will get to hear a selection of traditional Hebrew songs as a part of the program.
Hearing a new spin on classic songs is exciting enough, but Sunday’s performance is all the more special thanks to the folks involved. Armstrong State University Assistant Professor Benjamin Warsaw will play piano, while Amy Drew of Ms. Amy’s School of Music joins in on clarinet. Listen for Laura Savage on violin, Marc Chesanow on bass, and Miller keeping the beat on percussion.
While many of the performers have worked with one another in different elements and various combinations, Fiddler is the first time they have all performed together as an ensemble.
“We had our first rehearsal, a two-hour rehearsal,” Miller says, “and at the end, everyone had a smile on their face. I think everyone’s pretty excited to be performing this stuff.”
Miller knows that the timeless musical has a huge fan base, and he doesn’t want attendees to hold back their enthusiasm—join in the fun!
“We’re playing in a sanctuary, but don’t be shy about getting up and dancing!” he laughs.