Jeremiah Lockwood Fuses Cantorial Music with a Big Beat,and Reveals Hidden Melodies on the Road to Faith
The Sway Machinery, as of late (from left): Stuart Bogie, Tomer Tzur, Jordan McLean, Jeremiah Lockwood, Colin Stetson. ‘Together with my colleagues, I am revisiting the work of my heroes of Chazzanus, particularly the music of my grandfather. In this way I am hoping to return to that place of childlike awe that he opened to me and share it with the world.’
Photo: Scott Irvine
Almost from the time he was 13 years old and an apprentice blues guitarist and singer on the streets and in the subways of New York City, Jeremiah Lockwood, now pushing 30 and about to be a father for the second time, has envisioned fusing what he has inherited in family, faith and music into a singular experience that speaks to many worlds: with songs drawn from the recorded canons of several prominent Cantors, not the least being his beloved grandfather, Cantor Jacob Konigsberg, and his twin interests in both the mysticism and philosophies of the Jewish faith as handed down through the generations, all coupled to a fairly encyclopedia knowledge of and stylistic immersion in country blues and early rock 'n' roll, Lockwood is taking Jewish music to places it simply hasn't visited before, in what he views as a deeply spiritual act of restoring an ancient tradition he describes as having ben “essentially lost, or degraded” with the waning of the Cantor’s influence in the Jewish community.
His group The Sway Machinery, formed in 1996, has evolved from a hard rock trio with jazz overtones (it occasionally used a small horn section) to a basic quintet (its members have impressive resumes, having played with indie rock favorites such as Antibalas, Balkan Beat Box, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and unconventional, unclassifiable musicians such as Tom Waits, et al.) that challenges-nay, defies—a listener to pinpoint the multitude of sources informing its music. Middle Eastern and, now, Afro-beat stylings are predominant features of the Sway Machinery soundscape, but right smack in the middle of a clanging, raucous workout, whoa! There's Lockwood injecting a spitfire, hard-picked run on his Telecaster that comes right out of the Scotty Moore playbook, circa Memphis 1954; or the blurting, blaring horns offering a sly, sweet riff that also hearkens to Memphis, but rather to the Memphis Horns of the late '60s-early '70s Stax Records juggernaut across town from the Sun Studio from whence a revolution began a decade earlier. To some it might sound like clatter, or free jazz, but sticking with it reveals a compelling symmetry in the instrumental give-and-take, the casual appropriation of sources Eastern and Western that lend the sound a distinctive sweet and pungent flavor; and riding over it all, Lockwood's jittery, dramatic, resonant baritone vocals, oftimes singing lyrics in Yiddish but rendering them accessible in the context of the total presentation. In short, you may not understand what he's singing from a literal standpoint, but the music's energy and Lockwood's emotional commitment make a statement that obviates the need for translation.
Lockwood himself has recorded a striking solo album, American Primitive on the Vee Ron label (and has another solo project in the can, unreleased), but more so than exploring new avenues of musical expression in rock-influenced songs penned expressly for the Sway Machinery lineup, Lockwood is engaged in shaping a mammoth musical project, “Hidden Melodies Revealed,” a work encompassing “20 to 25 songs,” in the artist’s estimation, some being original but most of them drawn from cantors’ songbooks from the early 20th Century and from Jewish prayer book texts (“they’re very abstract, mystical poetry, mostly”), which speaks to the Jewish music tradition he learned from his grandfather and that expresses his own feelings about his faith, which is a source of ongoing study on his part and very much a factor in shaping his artistic sensibility.
Lockwood grew up with music all around him on Manhattan's upper west side. His father, a Gentile who converted to Judaism, is a classical composer, his mother is a public school teacher. It was her father, Cantor Jacob Konigsberg, something of a star in his world, if you will, whose spirituality, discipline, intellect and strength-and recordings-made a deep and lasting impression on young Jeremiah. Tellingly, when asked to define the role of the cantor in the Jewish faith, Lockwood offers an answer that could almost be a self description. To wit: "There's a simple answer and a more complex one. The simple one is he's the person who leads the prayers and sings them, and has to know the prayer modes for all the different seasons and all the different times of day. There's different modalities and melodies for all the different holidays of the year and also for the prayers that happen at different hours of the day. So it's kind of like a wide knowledge of specific musical information and they also have to have a good voice, be a good musician.
Cantor Jacob Konigsberg, Jeremiah Lockwood's grandfather and the composer of many of the pieces performed by The Sway Machinery. This photo is taken from one of Cantor Konigsberg's album covers.
"That's the simple answer. The more complex answer is they're more like a spokesman, kind of a collective focal point for the spiritual experience, in its classical formation, in its classical concept, the cantor is the person who guides the group into spiritual experience through the cathartic experience of music. And sort of like a storyteller also. They're telling this story through music. The prayer modes thereof, each one is very specific in terms of creating an atmosphere and certain feeling."
Cantor Konigsberg, the American-born son of immigrant Jewish parents who lived resolutely in the world of their fathers, embraced the new world he grew up in on Manhattan’s lower east side, while worshiping in his parents’ world.
"My grandfather’s way of thinking about the world was very American and very much of his generation, but still he was completely comfortable in both parts," Lockwood says. "I'm lucky in that even though I'm coming from a completely secular background basically, I also have one foot in this other world of my grandfather and his house, listening to old records of old cantorial music, and hearing him sing. So there are ways in which, even without the structure of the circumscribed religious life, you can have elements of it that translate into an experience that still makes sense, that's still accessible, even if you're not living in a ghetto."
Lockwood’s entrée into music was less through the classical or the cantorial than via what he calls his parents' "party music," meaning "Motown, '60s R&B, Elvis, stuff like that." At age 12 dad bought him a guitar, by 13, entranced and inspired by a father-son duo of blues musicians he encountered playing on the street, he himself had become a street performer. A family friend turned out to be a student of the great blues artist the Rev. Gary Davis, and he in turn taught Lockwood some of the tricks of the trade. Then he met Carolina Slim.
"Playing on the street I met Carolina Slim, this great blues guitar player from South Carolina, a singer, and that's when it began more seriously. I mean I started playing on the street and spending all my time listening to blues records and playing pre-war country blues as best I could. Meeting him was like direct from a first-hand source, learning the tradition. He's a very tough teacher, told me I didn't know anything, that I was terrible, that I should probably stop playing. But he was also very nice and kind to me, giving me the time, beating me down so I would be able to rise up."
From the beginning he adopted some aspects of the cantorial singing style he had learned listening to his grandfather in person and on record. These days the cantorial style is the predominant feature of his singing. It’s a natural fit, given its multi-cultural components.
"Cantorial singing style has a foot in two different worlds," Lockwood explains. "One is the world of a mythical past of the Jews in ancient times bringing this modality from wherever they came from in ancient history in the Middle East; and the other foot is in western European music. It draws on both world views, and people debate a lot about where it comes from. There are definitely recognizable elements of Slavic folk music and Balkan-style vocal effects and Turkish-Ottoman classical music, on the one hand; and on the other hand there's a very obvious influence of bel canto western singing. In the 19th Century it started becoming par for the course that in addition to learning all the traditional music cantors would also study western musical theory. That had a very palpable effect on the music. My grandfather could have been an opera singer; he had an amazing bel canto style voice. But he chose to stay in this realm of traditional music. And also, the cantor is an improviser. They're working with traditional material but it's not like set in stone exactly how it goes. You take the modes and you bend it and put your own particular style on it. And then, also, most of the great cantors also composed pieces that access elements of traditional motifs, but would also go off in different directions."
It's on the Sway Machinery website, however (www.swaymachinery.com), that Lockwood offers a revelatory bit of information vis-à-vis his ambitious current project: "When I was a boy my grandfather and I used to sit in his study listening to records of the great Cantors: Zawel Kwartin, Pierre Pinchik, Berele Chagy and other masters of Jewish music. In the dimly lit room, fragrant with pipe smoke and lined with huge volumes of the Talmud, their names resonated with a rich feeling of mythology and ancientness. On the wall was hung a framed print of a 16th century French map. In each corner of the map stood an image of one of the four races of the world, as was understood by the cartographers of the time. The images fortified the feeling that in that room the past and present and all of human kind were united in the study of some ancient wisdom. It felt to me as a child that there, in the dusky back room of my Grandparents' apartment in Queens, a passageway was opened into the heart of the world."
Which brings us to Hidden Melodies Revealed, described by Lockwood as “a project that seeks to reclaim the deep roots of Ashkenazic Jewish spiritual music. It is my belief that in the work of the master Chazzans of the Golden Age of Cantorial music there is a model for creative work that can be usefully employed today. In the Cantor's balance of artistic authority and spiritual humility I see a perfect stance from which to speak to the emotional needs of the contemporary world. Together with my colleagues, I am revisiting the work of my heroes of Chazzanus, particularly the music of my grandfather. In this way I am hoping to return to that place of childlike awe that he opened to me and share it with the world."
Hidden Melodies Revealed made its public debut in September 2007 as a “secret celebration” of the Jewish new year Rosh HaShana performed at the Angel Orensanz Foundation on the lower east side, formerly a synagogue (built in 1849) where Cantor Konigsberg gave his first big concert in 1949.
“This is music of great power,” Lockwood says, “music that’s extremely visceral, immediately emotive, expressive of history but at the same time very present in the moment. People listen to records of old cantorial music and I don’t think they hear much of anything, really; it’s too esoteric for most people; it’s too dry. It’s like listening to country blues. You know, most people can’t listen to country blues. They say, ‘What is it?’ They have no context; they barely hear anything. Like those frequencies in their ears aren’t working. So, for a lot of people country blues got real popular in the ‘60s through the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan—someone said, ‘Let me show you how to listen to this,’ and gave them a context.
Jeremiah Lockwood in the film The Chosen Ones, a documentary by German filmmaker Wendla Nolle. ‘This is music of great power,’ Lockwood says of the cantorial songs of Hidden Melodies Revealed. ‘Music that’s extremely visceral, immediately emotive, expressive of history but at the same time very present in the moment.’
“So I thought, something like that, with cantorial music. To use the other things I know about making music, from studying blues, from studying African music, which has become increasingly important to me, from the songwriter—use these skills and treat the cantorial music tradition with these tools, and create something new with them. That was the idea of starting the project.”
“In your average synagogue in America, it’s not on the same level that it used to be. In the ‘20s, ‘30s, ‘40s, maybe even into the ‘60s, when people would go to a synagogue to hear a cantor and they loved cantorial music, it was their music, it told their story. I don’t see that when I go to a synagogue today; and even if the cantor is good, and trying to do the tradition in an authentic way, just the interaction with the community isn’t there. That’s very depressing to me, because I grew up loving cantorial music, from hearing my grandfather doing it, and it was in a very beautiful, very aesthetic, intense performance kind of way. I believe that the music is capable of being communicative, and if I don’t see that happening, I think, I’m good at communicating through music, so maybe I can do something. I’m good at capturing peoples’ attention—from playing in the street for years and years I know how to scream and shout and jump up and down. So I can use the strength of my ancestors’ tradition and use my own skills that are more in the contemporary moment, and maybe something will come of it.”
But this is not his grandfather’s or any other Cantor’s music. At root it is, because the songs are from Cantor Konigsberg’s repertoire, or from other legendary cantors such as Mordechai Hershmann, whose “Misratzeh B’rachamim” dates from an early ‘20s recording, but is retrofitted for the 21st Century. “You listen to the Sway Machinery version of it,” say Lockwood, “and it’s obviously the same piece but his version is non-metered, first of all—cantorial music doesn’t have rhythm in the way we think of it—it’s not pulse-based rhythm; it’s rhythmic phrases. What they call the mawwal in Arabic music, the non-metered improvisations. Like most cantorial pieces are like mawwals.
“But our idea is,” Lockwood cautions, “that we’re going to turn it into an explosive experiential music experience. Kind of like a party but one that makes you go inward and outward at the same time. People are seeing it either as kind of like party music, or they’re seeing like avant-garde music, or they’re seeing it as spiritual music. I’ve had all three responses. I would say that our audience is not exclusively or not predominately Jewish. Which is also by design. I think it’s music that’s good for anybody.”
On an even deeper level, Hidden Melodies Revealed is in fact revelatory of Lockwood’s ongoing spiritual inquiry. As a student of the Talmud and other Jewish texts—“I’m studying Jewish texts all the time, more than I like to admit or that I own up to. I don’t think of myself as a religious person, but on the other hand, I am studying these texts all the time.”—his pursuit of the music and the ancient wisdom of the Jewish elders of old are inextricably intertwined, at least to the extent Lockwood recognizes faith working in his own life, which he likens to “an archeological process.
“It’s intellectual in a way,” he responds to the question of what faith means to him. “It’s very much being concerned with an aesthetic, an idea of learning as a form of meditation, by studying ancient texts or studying old music—that that’s the spiritual act, that learning, going in to yourself and this process of discovering something that’s outside the realm of the everyday. That’s where the spiritual experience lies. Obviously then it blossoms in the moments of experience when you’re singing the music, and you experience it in a different way. But for me, when I think about religion I think it means a hermetic, inward, very intellectual experience of going into yourself, and getting to this place through something that seems like it’s not necessarily spiritual; maybe it’s more in the head, but this process gets you to something which is hidden, it’s underneath.”
So studying the ancient texts is done in the pursuit of wisdom, or of spiritual guidance?
“Perhaps wisdom is the right word, but wisdom in the ancient sense of wisdom as almost like an ether, like a substance that we can attain by doing certain ritual actions, and one of the ritual actions is learning. It’s kind of a Platonic idea. There’s this other sphere and we’re here and we can get to that through these little lines that are drawn from there to here. And the lines are words; if you look at them closely you see all the letters of the alphabet on the line.”
And would Cantor Konigsberg have approved of his music being transformed as it is in his grandson’s hands?
“Yeah,” Lockwood answers without hesitation. “He would have liked the idea of it. I don’t know if he would have been able to listen to it and understand it. Any music that had rhythm to it, he was kind of like, ‘What is this? Kids’ new fangled stuff.’ Louis Armstrong was a little too risky for him.”
For more background on “Hidden Melodies Revealed,” and to hear full versions of some of the completed songs, visit www.swaymachinery.com