Meet your neighbor... ‘Jazz Rabbi’ Greg Wall
Updated 4:10 pm, Wednesday, December 27, 2017
WESTPORT — Greg Wall has played many rooms.
In earlier times, he and his band had a standing gig at the King Cole Room at the St. Regis Hotel in New York City. In the early- to mid-1990s, Wall was a regular at the original Knitting Factory on Houston Street, a hub for New York’s downtown experimental jazz scene. He toured Europe and much of the United States with the various bands he’s led in his more than four-decades-long career as a jazz musician.
But on a recent Wednesday night — and weekly for about the last three years — Wall and his bandmates have played the dining room of 323 Restaurant & Bar to a loyal crowd of Westport jazz enthusiasts.
“I don’t care how cold it is outside, it’s going to be nice and warm and toasty in here,” said Wall, referring to himself as “Your Faithful Servant” before launching into a set of jazz standards, like “Softly” and “You’ve Changed,” originals and improvisations backed by guitarist Rale Micic, drummer Jason Tiemann and organist Mark Minchello.
Wall, who brings a rotating cast of professional musicians weekly, stood front and center for more than an hour during the opening set, rocking his large frame back and forth in time or spurring on one of his soloing comrades with a call of “That’s right!” before cutting back into the music with a bellow from his tenor saxophone — or on some numbers, a blast from his soprano — and taking off on his own dizzying improvisation, incorporating elements of classical and experimental jazz and Eastern European music.
“I don’t know what it is, this room has great acoustics,” Wall said during intermission.
Hear him in Westport
Greg Wall plays every Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. at 323 Restaurant & Bar until the New Year. After January 1, Wall will play every Thursday at 7:30 p.m.
For more information on Wall, visit gregwall.com.
Not only is Wall a professional musician who cut his teeth as a student at the New England Conservatory and in the clubs and barrooms of New York’s downtown scene, he has also been a rabbi for nearly two decades, most recently at Beit Chaverim Synagogue in Westport.
Wall grew up mostly secular in Framingham, Mass. Though he had a bar mitzvah, he never considered himself religious as a kid.
“I didn’t feel a spiritual connection to Judaism. It was just something I did and it was over. And when you’re 13, that’s it. You know all there is to know about spirituality and religion,” Wall said.
Similarly, Wall came somewhat late to music, picking up the saxophone at 14 as a high school student, playing rock ’n’ roll with a local band and classical music and, for a time, thinking he might be a classical composer.
It wasn’t until Wall was 17 that he began playing jazz seriously and decided it was a career path he wanted to pursue. His parents, worried that the life of a musician wouldn’t pay the bills, demanded that Wall attend a “real school.” The move backfired.
Wall attended the University of Massachusetts Amherst for a year, where he met and studied with jazz legends Archie Shepp and Max Roach, who were visiting professors. Wall became hooked. At the end of the semester, he dropped out, took a year sabbatical, during which time he practiced eight hours a day, and then auditioned for the New England Conservatory in Boston.
“That was a completely different playing field,” Wall said. “The musicians there were really, really good. As much as you learn from your teachers you learn from your peers.”
After graduation, Wall moved to New York City to begin his career in music and became increasingly interested in modern and experimental jazz. The mid- to late-1960s recordings of Miles Davis and John Coltrane, especially the latter’s seminal “A Love Supreme,” were hugely important influences to Wall.
“Looking back, ‘A Love Supreme’ did a lot to open me up to the idea of spirituality and a life with the Creator front and center. That was basically John Coltrane’s spiritual manifesto. When you open it up, it says ‘Dear Listener: All Praise Be To God To Whom All Praise Is Due,’” Wall said.
He recognized the phrase, written in Coltrane’s liner notes, as the Jewish call to prayer in Hebrew that he had learned in his youth.
“I thought, ‘If Coltrane is saying this, I’ve got to check it out, because Coltrane is my hero,’” Wall said. “I found that there was a real beauty to it and it sort of paralleled my music. In terms of something that is a spiritual practice, I found out that Judaism in particular is set up for people who are willing to practice. You can really get good at it; you can get results from it.”
Through his 20s, as a gigging musician in New York, Wall’s interest in Judaism continued to grow. Eventually, he decided to observe the Sabbath, which meant no longer playing the busiest nights of the week — Fridays or Saturdays. It was a potentially hazardous move for a musician trying to make it in the city.
“Observing the Sabbath is like going through life with one hand tied behind your back. Being a musician is also like going through life with one hand tied behind your back. But being a Sabbath-observant musician is like having two hands tied behind your back and walking on one foot,” Wall said. “And yet, it took off.”
Wall began traveling to the “bowels of Brooklyn,” as he called them, to play Hasidic weddings, which, because Hasidic Jews also observe the Sabbath, allowed Wall to make some coin during the week, while also learning a new style of music, which Wall likened to traditional Jewish melodies mixed with cheesy ’80s dance music.
Those traditional melodies would eventually become the basis for Hasidic New Wave, an avant-garde jazz band formed by Wall and his college friend, trumpeter Frank London, that fused experimental jazz, rock and Hasidic music. The band became an important part of an emerging Jewish downtown creative scene in the early- to mid-1990s that included the inimitable composer, producer and multi-instrumentalist John Zorn, on whose label Wall still records.
How does one define the downtown music of the period?
“It reminds me of what Louis Armstrong said to the King of England when he asked, ‘What’s jazz?’ And Louis said, ‘Well, Rex, if you have to ask, you’ll never know.’” Wall laughed, affecting Armstrong’s sandpaper voice, before continuing.
“I think it was improvisational music that drew on a lot of sensibilities. We could channel George Clinton, Rod Stewart, Charlie Parker, Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, Antonio Carlos Jobim and Frank Zappa. All this stuff was swirling around in our head. What was the product? What was the end result after all that fermentation? What was that swill? That was the downtown scene,” explained Wall, before again picking up his saxophone and starting his second set.