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Jazz Musician Daniel Zamir's Journey Back to Judaism

Jazz saxophonist Daniel Zamir talks about becoming ba'al teshuva (returning to Judaism), his Suite for Gilad Shalit and the Matisyahu mikvah story.
By Ben Bresky
First Publish: 6/4/2009, 3:34 PM / Last Update: 6/8/2009, 10:36 PM

Jazz saxophonist Daniel Zamir has released a new CD with a tribute to kidnapped IDF soldier Gilad Shalit and a staggering 15-minute version of HaTikva. Unique vocalizations without words, almost like scat singing, make for upbeat and interesting rhythms.

Zamir talked to Israel National Radio's Ben Bresky about his new CD One and how he went from being a secular Israeli living in New York to returning to Israel as a religious Chabadnik.

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One humorous experience Zamir relates about becoming religious involves the time he and fellow musician Matisyahu went looking for a mikvah and risked being arrested for public indecency in suburban Connecticut. It all started because they were late going to perform a show in the Boston area.

Daniel Zamir's new CD One features Suite to Gilad Shalit, a 15 minute version of Hatikva and scat style vocalizations.

"Being what we are, hippie Chabad people, we didn't really leave on time and we got kind of stuck on the way." explained Zamir.

"Shabbos was coming and we had to stop in this town in Connecticut. We didn't know anybody there, but somehow a person who knew a person who knew another person, knew a family who was kind enough to have us for Shabbos. But the community had no mikvah."

"As you know, Chassidim go to the mikvah every day before davening except Yom Kippur and Tisha B'Av." Zamir said that both he and Matisyahu found their morning prayers to be lacking and felt they needed to find a mikvah first.

"We ended up going to this public park, with a tiny man-made lake with plants and  vegetation. They told us beforehand not to dare go there because if someone sees us, it's against the law. I told him, so what do you think? If you go in, I go in. A minute later he was all naked inside the lake and I went after him. Baruch Hashem, we got to toivel and daven like mentchen [take a dip and pray like human beings]."

Saxophonist Daniel Zamir in concert.

Going to a mikvah was the last thing on the two musicians' minds when they both started at The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in New York. Matisyahu went on to be nominated for a Grammy Award in the reggae category for his Jewish-themed music. Zamir returned to his native Israel after three critically-acclaimed albums in the United States on the Tzadik record label. His became a well-known name on the Israeli scene with his 2006 CD Amen. He explored singing on his 2005 Israeli release Zamir Sings Pop.

Besides the impossibly fast sax solos, the thing that stands out most on One is the "ba da ba di ba" vocals. They are just as fast, almost imitating improvisational instrumental style. The technique comes into play most on the 15-minute long HaTikva, of which only about a minute is the actually melody of the Israeli national anthem.

"I honestly don't know where it came from, but I've always done it." said Zamir. "I'm using the voice as an instrument in a way. It's more expressive then a mechanical instrument. I still won't forget the saxophone. I've been doing both since I was young."

His interpretation of HaTikva includes original words as well, which invoke the religious Jerusalem neighborhood of Mea Shearim and the mostly secular city of Tel Aviv. "The lyrics talk about our time which is the coming of Moshiach." explained Zamir. "The Lubavitcher Rebbe put very clearly. We are the generation of the redemption, the last generation of exile. So our time is really a special crossroads. Within that, the State of Israel is also a part of the story."

A teenage "Danny Zamir" with jazz legend John Zorn from Zamir's 1999 debut CD Satlah.

Introspective, religious themes weren't in Zamir's mind when he was a student at the Thelma Yellin High School for Performing Arts in Tel Aviv. But as he left for New York, barely 18 years old, he began "recognizing there is a spiritual dimension to life."

"The last place I was looking was Judaism, ironically enough." said Zamir. "I found that the answer to all my questions was in Judaism. It's the only spiritual system that allows the person to become bigger than himself, to go higher than the person himself. I started exploring it more deeply and thoroughly, and today, Baruch Hashem, I am a totally Chabad yirat shamayim person."

Daniel Zamir, now wearing a kipah from his 2000 CD Children of Israel, which featured jazz versions of 1920s Israeli folk songs from Mordechai Zeira and others.  With him are bassist Shanir Ezra Blumenkrantz and percussionist Kevin Zubek.

During the six years Zamir spent in New York he met other spiritual seekers. Among them was John Zorn, considered one of the world's best jazz musicians. Zorn produced and performed on Zamir's first CD's. A new CD was released last year on Zorn's Tzadik Records, a home for avante garde Jewish jazz musicians. Entitled I Believe, it features the rhythm section from Zorn's Masada band.

Another friend Zamir made was Matisyahu, of the aforementioned mikvah story. "Both of us were non-religious and both of us started to explore Judaism." Zamir says of his old friend. Our roads met and we made the transition together and stayed good friends."

Zamir's new disc features several non-religious musicians including Israeli rocker Barry Sacharoff and frame drum percussionist Zohar Fresco. Several of the tracks, as on his previous CDs, are called Poem 31 or simply 13, named in the order he originally wrote them. Zamir explains, "I decided to not give them names to leave it open, so anybody who listens can give their own names. If I name a song 'Winter", for example, you'll have winter on your mind. But if I name it Poem Number 19", you can think of winter, summer or even a chair. It's up to you."

The cover of Daniel Zamir's 2000 debut CD Satlah.

Another piece on Zamir's new CD is entitled Suite for Gilad Shalit, about the IDF soldier kidnapped by Hamas terrorists in 2006 and assumed to be held captive somewhere in Gaza.

"It's very important to see him coming back." said Zamir. "When writing material for the album it was hard for me to concentrate sometimes because I was thinking about him. What is he doing? When was the last time he took a haircut? How is his room? How many times a day does he see daylight? What does he eat? Who does he talk to? What kind of bed does he have? What kind of clothes?  I got to the point where I couldn't write music and I thought I would take my car and try to personally get him out of there. That wasn't such a smart idea. So I decided to dedicate everything I was doing to him until he comes back."

In 2006 Zamir, now back in Israel, shot into the Israeli public consciousness with his well received Amen,  featuring collections and reworkings of previous compositions.

The composition included Zamir's wordless vocalizations, starting out mellow, and meditative and moving into a catchy up-tempo beat. "It's not like the suite has lyrics like 'Come back Gilad'," said Zamir. "It has a bracha [blessing] that I composed. Music has a very significant  spiritual power. When you daven to somebody and play music to somebody, that makes a difference. It changes reality. My prayer is that the music will touch the strings of heaven and things will change and he should come back very soon."

Daniel Zamir is set to debut the material from One on June 8th at Zappa in Tel Aviv and will repeat the performance June 11th at 9:00 p.m. at HaMa'abada (The Lab) in Jerusalem.

Ben Bresky is a music critic and host of the Israel Beat Jewish Music Podcast on Arutz 7 - Israel National Radio. His blog and podcast archives can be found by clicking here.