Melding Jewish music, jazz

Pianist: Jon Simon has made a niche reinterpreting the traditional.

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Howard Live

December 02, 2004|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,SUN STAFF

During the holiday season, Christmas music is everywhere, but it seems as if a good Hanukkah song is hard to find.

That's how pianist Jon Simon felt about 16 years ago.

"After hearing all these fun, interesting ways of taking familiar [Christmas] songs and re- interpreting them ... I went home and started noodling around the keyboard," he said.

He decided that Jewish music -- including Hanukkah songs, music from other holidays and folk music -- could be revamped and revitalized, as well.

Simon, 49, of Bethesda, has since carved a musical niche for himself taking a jazz approach to Jewish music. He has released six albums with Jewish themes, along with two other jazz albums.

Simon will appear in concert Dec. 11 at Jim Rouse Theatre in Columbia, an event sponsored by Columbia's Beth Shalom Congregation.

In 1988, Simon used a few hours of studio time that his parents gave him as a gift to record an album of his arrangements of Jewish tunes, called New Traditions.

It included solo jazz piano renditions of the Hanukkah song "Ma'Oz Tzur" ("Rock of Ages"), a High Holy Day prayer called Avinu Malkenu (Our Father, Our King) and a popular wedding processional, "Erev Shel Shoshanim" ("Evening of the Roses").

"I had no real commercial aspirations," he said. "This was kind of a labor of love."

But his compact discs did sell, and he started receiving calls from radio stations, synagogues and those who produce concerts.

He recorded New Traditions 2 in 1990 and has been building his reputation ever since. Subsequent albums focused on Hanukkah favorites and Jewish-themed music from Broadway and Hollywood. His latest album, Shabbatjazz, focuses on melodies for the weekly day of rest and prayer. His compositions are "rooted in the jazz tradition," he said. "There is improvisation around everything I do."

He also plays with the arrangements of songs, introducing Latin rhythms, for example, or making a traditional song swing. "A lot [of tunes] are in the more spiritual vein," he said. "I treat these songs with respect, but you can get into a pretty nice groove. Others are more whimsical and fun."

Simon said his family attended a Conservative synagogue when he was growing up in Rochester, N.Y., and he studied music throughout his childhood at the Eastman School of Music's preparatory programs.

He studied composition at the University of Michigan School of Music for two years and then switched to engineering. "After sophomore year, I decided [music] was a wonderful avocation and a crazy vocation," he said.

He earned a master's in business administration at Harvard University and then returned to Rochester to work in his grandfather's plastics business.

After moving to Maryland in 1986, he focused on several business ventures, including a couple of Internet start-up companies. For four years, he has been owner of Parkway Custom Dry Cleaning in Chevy Chase.

He said he is happy playing a dozen or so gigs each year so he has time for his wife, three children and business career.

His success with Jewish music "is really surprising," he said. "I am touched and honored ... to be able to share my interpretations."

But he said he thinks there is an audience for his work as he sees more people returning to spirituality and more Jewish people becoming interested in their roots.

Sandy Friedman, who is organizing the Columbia concert for Beth Shalom (and who is Simon's cousin), said there is still a shortage of opportunities to enjoy Jewish culture. "There are tons of Christmas celebrations," Friedman said. "Usually for Hanukkah, there are a few little puppet shows. [Locally] there are not any concerts or anything celebrating the music."

She said her congregation wanted to do something significant for Hanukkah this year, opting for a concert in the largest indoor venue in the county.

"It's a nice celebration for the whole Jewish community," she said. "We thought he would appeal to a younger group because his music takes the traditional melodies and ... puts a jazzy, contemporary spin to them."

An Evening with Jon Simon is to begin at 8 p.m. at Jim Rouse Theatre, 5460 Trumpeter Road, Columbia. Tickets are $25. Sponsorship and priority seating opportunities are available. A dessert reception will follow the performance. Information: 410-531- 5115.

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