While not every religious service becomes a religious experience, the annual Jazz Fest Shabbat at Touro Synagogue comes close to firing on all cylinders. The combination of jazz, blues and funk set against a traditional Friday night worship service sung in Hebrew and English makes for an unusual event and one that might not easily be appreciated by the non-Jewish crowd.
But this is Jazz Fest Shabbat, a concept invented by the late Cantor Steven Dubov 23 years ago as a way of expressing love of music with love of worship during the opening weekend of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
Over the years a succession of cantors have carried on in Dubov's stead, leading the worship services with Rabbi David Goldstein, then Rabbi Andrew Busch and, since 2009, Rabbi Alexis Berk. Most recently, Cantor Billy Tiep was replaced by Cantor Joshua Kaufman and then by Cantor Jamie Marx. It is the cantor who coordinates the affair, which involves a full adult choir, musicians and special guest performers. Occasionally, the cantor will arrange a special rendition of a liturgical work for the benefit of the attendees.
This year is was the Joe Krown Trio with organist Joe Krown playing a Hammond organ complete with a leslie. Krown's other collaborators were singer and guitarist Walter "Wolfman" Washington and drummer Russell Batiste, Jr.
While not as well known as some of the previous headliners like Kermit Ruffins, Irma Thomas, Marcia Ball, Dr. Michael White and Allen Toussaint, Krown brought his A-game with him, letting his adept keyboard work highlight and lead the vocals and guitar play emanating from Washington. Batiste's peripatetic drumming kept the beat moving along all night. The three focused their energies into a sound that was loose, but ordered.
The night began with a traditional marching band from Sophie Wright Charter School playing selections from near the pulpit.
When things kicked off, they did so with the blasts of a shofar played by David Bernstein. The religious service started off with traditional liturgy accompanied to anything but traditional music, some arranged by Marx and others written by Kurt Weill, Debbie Friedman and Craig Taubman.
Jews and gentiles alike were moving and swaying to the beat of "Adon Olam/When the Saints Go Marching In" when the night officially ended.
The Jazz Fest Shabbat has become so well attended in several years in the past that regular worshipers were denied entrance to their own synagogue on the Friday night event. Attendees have been urged in more recent years to become patrons, paying for reserved seats, private entertainment and a catered meal prior to the public performance.