Sassy, heartwarming, sophisticated
by Sandor Slomovits
Embracing diversity is a major theme running through Jeff Haas's music. You see it in the bilingual (Hebrew and English) titles of his recordings, L'Dor VaDor Generation to Generation and HaGesher Chai The Bridge Lives. You see it in the cover art of The Bridge Lives, a picture of interlaced black and white children's hands. And you see it in the makeup of his current quintet. Haas is the son of German Jewish immigrants; drummer Alex Trajano is Filipino; bassist Marion Hayden is an African American woman; trumpeter and flgelhorn player Marcus Belgrave, the highly respected elder statesman of Detroit's jazz scene, is African American; and trumpeter and saxophonist Rob Smith, as his name would suggest, represents Middle America.
In his original music, though, you really hear Haas celebrate these themes. Here are lyrical, haunting European Jewish modes intertwining with the sinuous scales of Middle Eastern and African traditions, supported by complex jazz chords and voicings, and propelled by engaging, swinging rhythms.
Perhaps this is to be expected, given Haas's background. His father, Karl, after barely escaping the Nazi horrors of the 1940s, settled in the Detroit area, where he served as organist for Temple Israel for twenty-five years and also hosted a popular classical music program, first on WJR and later on National Public Radio. Jeff Haas grew up in Detroit, sitting next to his father on the organ bench, studying classical piano with him, and walking to school in his integrated neighborhood. On the way, he passed a John Birch Society headquarters whose members, he says on the liner notes to The Bridge Lives, "screamed obscenities at us every day."
Don't get me wrong Haas is not combining these motifs in his music simply to make a musical appeal for tolerance. He is not preaching from his piano pulpit. Nor will anyone who hears his band ever think Haas chose these musicians for their varied ethnic backgrounds. They have the chops
and the credits to stack up with any jazz all-star band. Haas has simply found a compositional voice that allows him to meld his musical and life experiences into a vibrant and coherent whole, and he's chosen bandmates who can make that voice really sing.
The result is jazz that is by turns as sassy as a teen with attitude, as heartwarming as a family reunion, as sophisticated as modern classical music, and as accessible as 1920s dance tunes. Haas is solidly in the jazz tradition and yet has created a unique sound out of his family legacy. Only Haas could start playing one of his soulful jazzy compositions, based on a traditional Hebrew folk tune, and then segue seamlessly into John Coltrane's "Lonnie's Lament" and make you believe the two have always belonged together.
Jeff Haas brings his quintet to the Firefly Club on Saturday, June 5.
[Originally published in June, 2004.]