Atlanta music festival bounces back from COVID; Joe Alterman bounces with it

The former Jewish Music Festival gets a new name.

When jazz musician Joe Alterman was recording a live album at the Birdland jazz club in Manhattan last year, he had a new tune that needed a name.

It was February 2020, and he had no inkling of the disaster that was about to land on performing musicians.

In the next month he would be in the middle of a pandemic that not only wiped out 50 gigs he’d planned for the coming months, it derailed the Jewish Music Festival, of which he had become artistic director.

There was a financial cost. But there was also a thin silver lining. With nothing to prepare for, Alterman, found himself back on his own, just a guy and a piano, and a very simple question, “what do I want to play?”

It turns out, his muse led him into a different place. Instead of the classic songbook of Harold Arlen and the grits and gravy of Les McCann he found himself drawn to lighter pop songs from the ‘60s and ‘70s, including tunes from James Taylor, Randy Newman and Bill Withers.

“I felt free to do things I might not have done before,” he said. Including vocals.

Now, with his battery recharged, Alterman, 33, delivers a new album, a string of dates, and a curated festival of events that celebrates the contribution of Jews to American musical culture.

That festival includes three events this weekend at the Chattahoochee Nature Center and a series of concerts this fall and next spring, bringing such artists as Michael Feinstein, David Grisman and Benny Green to Atlanta.

All are part of the new version of the Atlanta Jewish Music Festival which has been rebranded with the musical Hebrew name, Neranenah.

The word means “to come together and sing.” The choice of the word came about as a result of many conversations between Alterman and his board, and supporters of the festival.

The question he asked over and over was “What is Jewish music?”

“I asked it 300 times and I got 300 different answers,” said Alterman, just back in town after another series of gigs in Manhattan.

It’s not a festival devoted to klezmer music, or to cantors. It’s not just for music written by Jews, or performed by Jews. It’s a series of performances that demonstrate the impact that Jews have had on American music.

His friends concluded that Jewish music “was the story about the music, not the music.” For example, Alterman met with George Wein, creator of the Newport Folk Festival and the Newport Jazz Festival, and asked him that same question. Wein’s answer: “Cole Porter,” which is hilarious, because among the composers creating songs for musical theater in the 1920s and ‘30s in New York, Porter stood out as the rare gentile.

But Porter knew his audience. “Cole Porter understood that 80 percent of audiences coming to shows in New York were involved with Yiddish theater, so because of that, he was writing with that in mind,” said Alterman.

The word, Neranenah, is exotic (it comes from the lyrics of “Hava Nagila,” a must at Jewish weddings), but we’ll get used to it, said Alterman.

In the meantime, he’s come up with a name for that tune, and for his new album. “The Upside of Down” — featuring songs by Les McCann, Oscar Peterson, Henry Mancini and Alterman — explores the bright side of misfortune, as in the birth of the blues. One example: a worldwide pandemic and a canceled year gives you the chance to try something new.

Alterman will celebrate the new album with a performance at Eddie’s Attic in Decatur at 8 p.m. Friday, Aug. 13; $20-25; 515-B N. McDonough St. 404-377-4976, eddiesattic.com.


MUSIC PREVIEW

Neranenah continues this weekend with several events at the Chattahoochee Nature Center. Food and drink are for sale at the events.

The Wind-Down, a Community Musical Shabbat with Micah Lapidus. Neranenah describes this as “a concert embedded in a Shabbat service featuring some of the Atlanta Jewish communities most talented musicians.” 7:30 p.m. Friday, July 30; $15, ticket includes one drink.

Duchess, a female vocal trio, singing “the Jewish American song book.” 7:30 p.m. Saturday, July 31; $25-$35.

An Evening of Comedy with Eddie Brill and Judy Gold, 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 1; $25 to $35.

All events are at the Chattahoochee Nature Center, 9135 Willeo Road, Roswell. 770-992-2055, neranenaharts.org.