Features December 18, 2023

Celebrating a Swinging Hanukkah

by Valerie Vampola

Jewish jazz musician Domi Edson released an album of her favorite traditional songs.

The Holidays were always a complex time for jazz bassist Domi Edson. She enjoys the classic jazz holiday recordings by the Vince Guaraldi Trio or Nat King Cole. She even plays many Christmas gigs every holiday season. But Edson is Jewish. Edson never found a jazz recording for Hanukkah. So she decided to write and record A Jazzy Hanukkah with her trio.

“There are so many great jazz Christmas albums, but the holidays are saturated with Christmas. I wanted to create something for Jewish people,” Edson said. 

When Edson got to high school, she discovered her love for jazz. She probably played hundreds upon hundreds of jazz arrangements of Christmas and winter themed jazz band charts and recordings. She didn’t mind. She even considered, say, the Guaraldi recording, known as the soundtrack for “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” an objectively good jazz record without religious or sentimental significance, fitting in the same category as Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue.  But she didn’t grow up with Christmas.

She spent her childhood immersed in Jewish culture, attending Jewish day school in Seattle, where half of her day was learning standard elementary subjects like language arts and math, while the other half was learning about the Jewish culture and faith. During the holiday season, while most kids were learning to sing ‘Jingle Bells’ or ‘Silent Night,’ Edson was learning traditional Hanukkah songs like ‘Mi Yimalele’ or ‘Al Hanissim,’ songs that have been orally passed down since before the common era. At their small dinner parties, Edson’s family threw on the same rotation of folk and klezmer Hanukkah albums like Just In Time for Hanukkah by Margie Rosenthal and Ilene Safyan or Songs of Our Fathers  by Andy Statman and David Grisman. Edson continued her jazz studies after graduating high school in 2015 by receiving a bachelor’s degree from Central Washington University and a master’s from the University of Northern Colorado in. Now as an established professional musician and educator in the Denver scene, she felt empowered and ready to create the album her young self craved.

Listeners might think they are listening to an album adjacent to the Guaraldi classic, and they wouldn’t be wrong. Edson’s creative inspiration and style pulls from other artists like Ray Brown and John Clayton, both prominent bass players who played in popular piano-trio groups like the Oscar Peterson Trio and Jeff Hamilton Trio. As a bassist and bandleader, Edson specifically gravitated to these groups because they placed a lot of focus on the bass player, giving her space to show her musical voice through her solos and even playing the melody on the track “Lich’vod HaChanukah (Yodim Atem)” (which translates to “Do you know/in Honor of Hanukkah”). 

The album phases through different styles,  from straight-ahead swing like the opener “Mi Yimalel,” ( “Who Can Retell”) or “Ner Li” (“My Candle”),which she  adapted to a waltz feel. But listeners will also hear stylings like “Sevivon Sov Sov Sov,” (“Dreidel Spin Spin Spin”) which features a dancy latin feel, or “Banu Choschech Legaresh” (“We came to banish darkness”) which lays into a groovy funk and neo-soul vibe. 

Edson’s process for the album was listing off as many different jazz styles she could think of, then singing each melody in that style. She admitted a lot of things didn’t work, but when something clicked, the arrangements came together naturally. She discovered some cool surprises from her experimentation, like transforming “Al Hanissim” (“In Honor of the Miracles”) into a 5/4 time signature, or how beautifully “Yimei HaChanukah” (“These Days of Hanukkah/Oh Hanukkah”) worked as a ballad, an arrangement she co-wrote with fellow Jewish jazz musician Hunter Bergman.

“I didn’t change the melodies at all, so they are recognizable,” Edson said, “and with their interesting [song] forms that are different from western traditions, these songs provided the perfect canvas to work with.”

Despite the reharmonization and stylistic liberties she took, it was still important that Jewish people could recognize their songs in her arrangements. Due to Hanukkah’s proximity to Christmas, and how blown up the holiday season is, she feels her Jewish culture is misunderstood. This is apparent in any “new” Hanukkah songs included in holiday song collections as an attempt to be inclusive. Edson recalled sifting through a holiday Real Book, a book of winter/Christmas repertoire adapted for jazz style, where she found only one Hanukkah song featured. More so, it was a song neither she nor any of her Jewish friends had ever heard of, nor did it align with any Hebrew musical traditions. 

While A Jazzy Hanukkah is an instrumental adaptation of traditional songs, many of the lyrical themes revolve around the historical events of the holiday itself: when the Maccabees revolted against the Greeks and reclaimed their temple in Jerusalem, which was followed by the miracle of keeping the light within the temple lit for eight days, despite only having enough oil for one day. Thus, many songs are centered on facing adversity through community and metaphorical themes centered around candles. 

“Newer Hanukkah songs are anglicized, so I’m hoping this album helps educated people who are not Jewish to learn some music that is new to them,” said Edson.

While Edson created this album with her family and younger self in mind, she does hope it reaches a wider audience, even if they aren’t Jewish or celebrate Hanukkah. In which case the listener can take a page out of Edson’s book and just appreciate some quality jazz.

A Jazzy Hanukkah by the Domi Edson Trio was released on November 24th, 2023, and is available on streaming platforms.