Culture

How Great Jazz Artists Express a Peculiar Kind of Hebrew Happiness

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Hashlamah is a Hebrew word for which there’s no direct English translation. It comes from the same root as the words for peace (shalom) and complete (shalem). It has connotations of acceptance, reconciliation, wholeness, “coming to terms.”

Clearly, hashlamah is a good and desirable state to be in. But it’s more complex than happiness and harder to come by; it implies a culmination of processes. I’ve been fortunate to be feeling hashlamah for a few years, but it took decades to get there; it’s something earned. If there aren’t rocks in the road to it, it’s not hashlamah.

Since hashlamah is a subtle quality, not surprisingly it can be well expressed—maybe best expressed—in music. I would say that Beethoven in his late period was a hashlamah master. The quality is also very powerfully present in some Bruckner adagios. Some great jazz artists, too, have captured hashlamah in short, affecting works.

Until I heard this version by the very great jazz pianist Keith Jarrett, I only knew Tommy Edwards’s 1950s doo-wop version of “It’s All in the Game” and had always dismissed it as banal silliness. It turns out that the tune was written in 1911 by a future U.S. vice-president, and was used for a while as a light encore by the legendary classical violinist Jascha Heifetz. The corny, reductive lyrics were written in 1951.

With only Edwards’s version residing somewhere in my brain, I didn’t know what alchemy was till I heard this rendition by Jarrett. In his handling of it, the song is not about “love” but life. The instantly evoked serenity is a hashlamah serenity; the “all in the game” theme is there, but vastly deepened. The gentle, repetitive left-hand figure always makes me think of concentric ripples on a pond.

The performance, as you find out at the end of the video, is a live one, and Jarrett exercises the restraint of the true master: he plays through the song’s full progression twice while hewing to the melody, waiting for the improvisatory flow to start on its own. And when it starts—at 3:31, the beginning of the third progression—it’s in the form of sublime hashlamah eloquence.

It would be useless to try and translate these notes into words, but if one had to, they might be: “I have lived, I know what life is, I have made peace with it.”

Louis Armstrong’s 1927 recording of “Potato Head Blues” is a jazz classic. The song was one of several wonderful ones that Armstrong wrote in that period (“West End Blues,” “Weather Bird,” and “Cornet Chop Suey” are others). The critic Thomas Ward called this recording “one of the most astonishing accomplishments in all of twentieth century music.”

The critics’ adulation centers mostly on the melodic and rhythmic genius of Armstrong’s two cornet solos, which are sandwiched around Johnny Dodds’s clarinet solo (also outstanding) that runs from 1:04 to (with a brief banjo transition) 1:50. Most celebrated of all is Armstrong’s second solo that starts there, against stop-time rhythm, at 1:50, leading into a final ride-out chorus in quintessential New Orleans style with Armstrong’s cornet soaring.

I don’t argue with any of this; but I think the fact that the recording still lives today, and draws hundreds of thousands of views to YouTube, has to do not only with musically analyzable aspects but also with its emotional impact. To me the recording is pure hashlamah from start to finish; beneath the light gaiety of the surface, the melody moves past shoals of doubt and darkness and glides into sweet resolutions. It’s the complex, happy-sad mood that distinguishes such a gem from countless other, superficially similar numbers; a saying of “yes” to life that goes far beyond mere merriment.

That mood of apparent light gaiety harboring much deeper contents may well have stemmed from another New Orleans tradition with which Armstrong was well familiar—jazz funerals. As he describes it here, a brass band would follow the procession to the cemetery playing hymns and then, on the way back, break into swinging choruses of “Oh! Didn’t He Ramble.” The power of “Potato Head Blues” has something to do with that—a transcendent crest of music.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=twtsEhsf2fE

We’re back in modern jazz with this duet accomplishment by great, veteran vibraphonist Gary Burton and outstanding pianist Makoto Ozone, who wrote the number. “Times Like These” (not to be confused with a rock hit of the same name) is another hashlamah classic, built on a gentle, poignant melody that sounds like a culmination, a ray of light after brooding, not bypassing sadness but incorporating it in a larger whole.

Two excursions, one starting at 1:51 and the other at 3:34 with a samba-like rhythm, lead into a different, more rhythmically propulsive territory that allows Ozone and Burton, respectively, to improvise more expansively. But the final return to the dominant, hashlamah-rich melody at 5:00 is inevitable, leading to the delicate, reflective little vamp that closes the piece.

This tune has “occupied” me lately—my waking hours, sometimes my sleep too. It says so much.

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In this life hashlamah is, like everything else, contingent. It’s dependent on luck holding up, on nothing happening that would overturn hashlamah and force you to start building it up from the bottom again.

I’m encouraged, though, that the phenomenon exists at all, and can even last a while. Serenity as the destination, greater than the discord that has to precede it.