We are a myth loving people. In the field of arts and entertainment, there are quite a few favorite, archetypal tales that hold power for us. The overnight star. The poor kid turned millionaire. The once mighty, drug-addled has-been. In music, few stories are more attractive than tales of rediscovered roots. It is the myth of accidental cultural homecoming.
Singers such as Natalie Cole and Carly Simon arrive, as if by some obscure, felicitous path, back to the classic pop music that floated casually about them in youth. Linda Ronstadt rediscovers her long-gone Mexican roots. And countless klezmer revivalists recapture a Jewish musical heritage they only faintly recall from childhood. Like most myths, this one comforts us: It makes us feel that we all might reach a happy new plateau in life by some magical reawakening of a vaguely remembered cultural legacy. Our identity will be finally intact.
But this is not Steve Tapper and Audie Bridges's tale.
No matter how many people ask flutist Steve Tapper how he happened to "rediscover" Jewish music, his current prowess with the genre has nothing to do with reawakened roots. He has long had Jewish music in his life. While jazz , folk-rock, Brazilian music, and New Age have held sway throughout his career, Jewish music has always been part of who he was as a flutist.
"Shalom Aleichem", this new album from Tapper & Bridges, is their third recording, but the first one devoted to Jewish music. There has been remarkable artistic growth evident in the 10 years that have passed since their last album "Simple Gifts." Steve Tapper and Audie Bridges have now played together as a duo for 14 years, and their synergy is apparent.
The Jewish music of "Shalom Aleichem" has been in their repertoire for many of those fruitful years. The Boston-based duo now plays about 150 gigs a year, many of them weddings, Bar Mitzvahs and parties. Their tunes have been bred in those hundreds of live shows. The music has grown in an "organic" environment.
"We know how each tune works not only because we have played them many times before a live audience, but also because we understand how they fulfill a social function. Many are dance tunes, or religious tunes. We've taken much of our repertoire from requests," said Tapper. "Here's an example: A bride once asked us to play a song her mother used to sing to her as a child. It was a lullaby, a family song. She sent me a tape and I transcribed it.
"The songs have a strong interaction with the audiences. And when we played them in the recording studio, I pictured the places we played them before: weddings, parties, services. It makes it a living music."
Audie Bridges agrees. "Steve has gotten songs over the telephone. A rabbi might sing the melody to him by phone, and then he presents the melody and chords to me, and I'm open to interpret it and choose the voicings I want. We eventually make each song personal. This is material we are playing all the time, constantly refining. There's a maturity to it now because we've been playing it for so many years."
There is a type of triumph behind the music of this album, but it does not hold the storied appeal of that old myth of rediscovered roots. It's a less "magical" kind of triumph. Tapper & Bridges represent the honorable survival of working musicians. Like many artists, they have gone where the work is. Like a select few, they have not relinquished their desire to make a personal and fine music. Keeping artistry alive within the context of commerce may not be a mythic ideal,but it is, nonetheless, an essential accomplishment.
Tapper & Bridges first played together in 1986. It was a time when Dionne Warwick knew "What Friends Are For," and Robert Palmer was "Addicted To Love." Whitney Houston, Prince, Heart, The Bangles, Peter Cetera, The Pet Shop Boys, Madonna and a band called Mr. Mister owned the Top 40. Knowing that their musical approaches were not intrinsically commercial or pop, Tapper & Bridges looked for a niche that allowed them to pursue their visions.
"We both wanted to make a career of playing really good music that had integrity. It didn't really matter what type," Tapper says.
In 1989 their debut album, "Island Dance," was played on many New Age and jazz radio shows, in the Boston area and around the country. The duo then geared their next album, "Simple Gifts," to the New Age format. Unfortunately, the release of the CD coincided with the demise of New Age music on commercial radio and Tapper & Bridges lost their niche. Their gentle, rhythmic merging of folk, jazz, Brazilian, and pop music no longer fit the marketplace.
Yet the gigs kept on coming, and more and more of them were Jewish music gigs. After a while, attendees at those events began asking for a recording of their Jewish music. And then, over the years, a funny thing happened. While Tapper & Bridges grew no closer to pop music, the whole genre of Jewish music was slowly being accepted as part of world music, and world music was becoming a bigger and bigger bin in our nation's music stores.
"Ten years ago, it seemed totally preposterous that the non-Jewish world would care about a Jewish recording," said Tapper. "Irish and Greek music had been included in 1980s New Age, but Jewish music, though equally beautiful, never was. But then klezmer music began being accepted into world music, and it seemed that what we were doing, while not klezmer, would fit in too."
That Jewish music might be appreciated by "the outside world" was clear to Audie Bridges. The guitarist, after all, is not Jewish. His affection for Jewish tunes began when he was living in Washington State in the 70's. "I worked with the music director at a temple in Seattle, and I was drawn to the music's folk qualities. I had played rock, jazz, and Brazilian, but I had always liked finger-picking and folk music and the moods it created, and with Jewish music I could do all that. The harmonies and melodies are really unpredictable. Many Jewish tunes don't follow western rules. There are unusual scales and intervals. And with Steve and I working so well together, we lift the music to that higher level."
The process of making a Jewish music both personal and authentic has been a long one. "In the beginning, we weren't very distinctive. We'd just put music in front of us and play the melody and the chords," said Tapper."After a while, we began playing Jewish music our own way, but since we developed it in front of people, it wasn't a contrived thing. We didn't experiment in weird ways that conflicted with the meaning of the songs," said Tapper.
"We don't play just to be flashy," Bridges added. "We look for insight into the songs. It isn't a question of playing a lot of cool licks. I'm looking for what makes the song special. With some songs, you have to look for a way to unlock what's inside it. And if you play a song long enough, you find a new way to conceptualize it."
Playing live gigs as a duo, Bridges spends much of his energies accompanying Tapper's flute, or rhythmically accompanying his own solos. In the studio, the presence of cellist Renata Bratt and percussionist Bob Weiner allows the guitarist to open up. They are both fluid, experienced players who fit snugly into the music presented here. Bratt has played her cello in classical, jazz, and rock contexts, ranging from performing with the San Diego Symphony Orchestra to backing up popular singers such as Lyle Lovett and Robert Plant. Weiner plays drumset as well as Middle Eastern and Latin Percussion, and he has worked with such varied artists as Harry Belafonte, Herbie Mann, Hugh Masakela, and Andy Statman's klezmer ensemble.
Bridges's most expansive, multi-mooded work on the album is on the one tune he composed himself, "Desert Dance." It is based upon a Yemenite-styled rhythm, and Bridges uses an electric nylon stringed guitar here in addition to his usual acoustic 6 and 12 string models.
The CD's other original is "Broken Leaves," written by Tapper. It captures the combination of sadness and hope at the heart of so much Jewish music.
About half the album is made up of traditional tunes, including "The Happy Nigun"a bright, upbeat klezmer number, and "Maoz Tsur", a plainly interpreted Hannukah song that, despite its simplicity, glows. A bit of movie music, John Williams' well known theme from "Schindler's List," fits right in. "Shababe" by Israeli composer/dance choreographer Moshiko Halevy was one of the first songs they added to their repertoire and they perform it at all of their gigs, not just the Jewish ones.
Many musicians refer to playing weddings and private functions as "GB gigs," short for "General Business." It is considered the musician's bread and butter, the non-glamorous jobs that pay the bills. But Tapper & Bridges don't think that way. They have transformed the GB gig into a higher calling. By creating a personal Jewish repertoire and putting their souls in the music, they have made their work at bar and bat mitzvahs, weddings and social occasions to be at least as "legitimate" as the music made in nightclubs and coffeehouses. Call it real folk music. For in making a music of meaningful social occasions they are serving a community in a more authentic way than commercial folk music could ever hope to. And yet, for all the communal element, their personal visions have not withered. They represent a sturdy, honorable marriage of art and commerce. Or as Audie Bridges says: "Every gig is a labor of love."
Boston Herald Folk Music Columnist