Kabbalah and Jazz: The Mystical Foundation of Improvisational Music

In his great work To Heal the Soul, Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira wrote that all humans each have their own unique musical ladder -- a distinct melody that allows one to draw down spiritual sustenance into this world. This melody is exclusive and in essence can not be performed by anyone else. He believes that it is so individualized that to use someone else's ladder is like putting someone else's saliva into your mouth to sing. This concept is so ubiquitous, so universal, that Rebbe Nachman of Breslov went as far as to say that each and every blade of grass has its own unique melody as well. Very poetic, but is there any substance to it?

Years ago this assertion would have been harder to make but not so since the advent of String Theory. Though there are many who reflexively disparage it, the fact of the matter is that as time progresses, science and mysticism seem to be merging. For instance, since the time of Aristotle, the common wisdom was that matter had always existed. So ingrained was this notion that even Einstein was prepared to "fudge" his own math to uphold the view (a move he would later call "the greatest blunder of my career"). The 3,300-year-old Jewish view that there was a "Beginning" to reality as we know it stood out in sharp relief against the prevailing wisdom and was vindicated in the last century. Science had taken a step toward religion.

As science developed the technological capability to peer deeper and deeper into the essence of matter, the familiar notion of minute balls or dots of matter was formed -- electrons, protons, neutrons and the like. As it turns out, this picture now seems to be inadequate and has been replaced by Super String Theory, a concept that suggests that the tiny matter contained in the proton is actually composed of uber-small strings, the vibrations of which give rise to all of physical reality. So we see that at its core, the universe is created through sound. In that light, Rebbe Nachman's singing grass does not seem quite as quaint, but is actually substantial. String theory also helps to explain why G-d specifically used the medium of speech (as opposed to thought, deed or anything else) to create the world as outlined at the beginning of Genesis. (Interesting side note: String Theory only works based on a model of the universe that contains either 10 or 26 dimensions which happens to be the exact same numbers suggested by the great Kabbalist Rabbi Issac Luria in the 16th Century.)

What does all of this have to do with Jazz? Well, as we have explained, every facet of the universe is currently singing its own unique tune. This highlights the intrinsic need for us to "be ourselves," and indeed, musicians perform at their peak when they are internally consistent. Miles Davis had trouble finding himself early in his career, preferring to incarnate as a second Dizzy Gillespie. Miles finally asked him why he couldn't play like him and Dizzy wisely explained that Miles heard other sounds in his head and that he should play those. The results were stunning. I once heard the great bassist Dave Holland defend the music of Kenny G as "authentic." "You may not relate to it," he said, "but he's being true to himself and you need to applaud that."

In Conscious Community, another classic by Rabbi Shapira, he explains the prophetic connection to music. Jewish tradition records that the prophets of antiquity used music to lull themselves into the prophetic state. There is a wonderful description in the Talmud of King David's meditative practice. He would prop up his stringed instrument by the open window and in the middle of the night as the wind began to blow across the strings he would be awakened by the tune and begin the process of focusing his thoughts. Rabbi Shapira relates that when the musician begins, he is playing the music and after a while, the music begins to play him. Every serious musician knows this to be the case. In fact, this is the reason they are drawn to play to begin with.

When I gave my graduate recital at the New England Conservatory, there was a moment during improvisations on Mahler's 9th that I simply ceased to be in control of what was unfolding. I became an observer of the performance, aware of it but no longer directing it. Melodies and musical ideas that I had previously been incapable of playing flowed from my fingers. It was fantastic, and for those moments I needed nothing else from life. The audience applause came as a shock, and then it was gone. There is something that the music does to the psyche. What is it? What properties does it have that so elevates the heart and mind? In an evolutionary sense, music has no value. The deaf are quite as capable of propagating the species as anyone else. How is it that these ordered tones compel us so?

Jazz, by virtue of its improvisational nature, forces the players to intently focus on the here and now. The musicians are balanced on a tight rope, not knowing precisely where the other side is and needing to depend on each other to get there. This trust and inspirational flow is similar to our relationship to G-d -- the less we are weighed down by the past or fretting over the future, the more of that natural creative (and spiritual) flow we can access. Many of the players I've spoken to and played with acknowledge this dynamic. They know that they have become a vessel for something bigger. It's their version of a religious rite, though they might never give it that appellation.

Kaballah explains that there are five spiritual dimensions and that at the intersection of the highest two, four energies merge: Eden, souls, Torah and music. This implies that each one of these concepts is a doorway to the others. Though Goethe wrote that architecture was "petrified music," dance, sculpture, drawing et al are not mentioned. It seems as though music hits a plane of reality that is simply higher than other artistic endeavors. It is the language of reality itself and its building blocks. Musicians also know the feeling of deep connection to the other players. It might not last five minutes after they leave the stage, but there is something magical while it lasts. As all people possess souls and as the root of all souls emanates from the top of that fourth world, it would follow that music is also a doorway to the merging of people on a soul level. Pleasure, wisdom, unity and transcendence are all byproducts of the true musical experience.