Tenemental Journey: Shapiro takes a stroll into prewar Jewish culture.

Is there such thing as a “meta-tribute”? Saxophonist Paul Shapiro may have invented it with his third CD, Essen. Having found a treasure trove of Jewish songs performed by mostly black, prewar jazz artists, Shapiro (who, like many in Tzadik’s stable, specializes in Jewish music) recorded Essen to pay homage to these homages. The songs sound like swing music-meets-Borscht Belt cabaret, and though its assortment of Jewish stereotypes can feel like overkill throughout the album’s 10 tracks, it’s uproarious fun. Shapiro’s “Ribs and Brisket Revue” sextet understands the harmonic relationships between Jewish and African-American traditions and has a blastjuxtaposing bluesy chords with swooping Eastern European melodies on “Utt-Da-Zay” (popularized by Cab Calloway) and vocalist Babi Floyd’s “A Bissel Bop.” But far more effective is its rhythmic fusion. The ’30s-era swing folds beautifully into klezmer’s folksy 2/4 bounce on “Tzouris,” and vice versa on “A Bee Gezindt.” Shapiro is at his cleverest on the title track: Realizing that klezmer’s groove sounds suspiciously like ska, he arranges the horns with licks that could fit either genre but also inserts reggae breaks. Even as the sound shifts, though, it’s bound together by an unceasing giddiness. Smart as that genre-crossing is, it’s largely limited to the music. Except for “A Bee Gezindt” and “Mama Goes Where Papa Goes,” where the cultures mesh inextricably, the lyrical themes are solidly in the “Jewish” category and sway uncertainly between sendup and stereotype. In particular, the album focuses on food—essen is Yiddish for “to eat”—and that focus gets old fast. Even if the album title and name of the band don’t capture the point, how many verses about matzo balls and gefilte fish does a 46-minute album need? It’s difficult to determine whether Shapiro is celebrating culinary traditions or playing up the “Jews are obsessed with food” cliché. He does mitigate this with his vocalists, the gruff-voiced Floyd and the brassy Cilla Owens, who bring a pedigree of raw swing and R&B that almost erases the ethnic caricature even as it adds laughs. Shapiro’s own Jewish heritage is noteworthy: In concentrating on African-Americans who paid tribute to Jewish-Americans, he neatly returns the favor and adds still another level of tribute. Given that ethnicities are, in effect, the album’s central concern, it’s unsurprising (albeit frustrating) that certain aspects are embellished, but the problem is redundancy, not meanness. At its heart, Essen is a smiling acknowledgment of the mutual respect between two American diasporas—and just plain good entertainment.