The Four Questions, released last April by the young Australian experimental jazz quartet Zohar’s Nigun, melds Jewish themes and traditions with modern jazz ideas, clearly illustrating that no musical tradition can resist transformative growth in the hands of fine jazz artists. Zohar’s Nigun, literally translated as “songs from the depth of the soul,” consists of violinist Daniel Weltlinger, pianist Daniel Pliner, bassist Simon Milman, and drummer Alon Ilsar. They describe their ambitious intentions on their record label’s website: “Utilizing an at times sharp sense of humor and a deep understanding of history and its endless repercussions, the band’s music offers an antidote to prejudice and stereotyping when so many voices lacking reason and balance seem to dominate the mainstream media.”
Although the album takes its title from the ritual four questions traditionally asked by the youngest person at the Passover seder, most of the tracks are not directly related to the holiday feast. Indeed the album is really divided into two parts. It begins with “Yerushalayim” a popular modern Israeli song that has become a tradition unto itself. Here it is given a haunting ethereal treatment, first focusing on Weltlinger’s violin and then moving dramatically to Pliner’s piano. It is a eloquent opening statement. They go on to play four more traditional pieces, a medley of the call for “Kohanim” and the prayer “Avinu Malkeinu,” “Hallel,” “Ma Nishtana” (the prelude to the four questions), and “Hinei Ma Tov U Ma Naim.” The last is a folk song whose lyric is taken from Psalm 133. It is often sung at festive occasions and here gets a vocal treatment.
After a short interlude, which signals a change through a raucous transition, the ensemble plays four original pieces, one by each of the members. Except for the first and last, the songs usually begin with variations on what seem like the traditional themes of the stetl and then take off with the solos. “Ahava Raba,” the first of the originals, could be seen as Weltlinger’s tribute to the world of Fiddler on the Roof. It is a very traditional piece, played with passion. Milman’s “Galaktaboureko,” Pliner’s “The Wanderer,” and “Enio’s Wedding Dance” (from Ilsar in collaboration with A. Moller) all have almost traditional openings, this last with a definite middle-eastern vibe, which shift into a jazz mode that provides nice opportunities for solo work. They use these traditional Yiddish themes with a compelling joy reminiscent of the joyous Ziggy Elman trumpet solo in “And the Angels Sing.”
The album ends with a recitation of the one prayer central to Jewish faith, the “Shema.” It is a fitting climax to an album that seeks to combine the best of two worlds and manages it with both beauty and skill. This is an album that deserves some attention.