Jazz saxophonist Michel Nirenberg is a proud Brazilian but recognizes his deep Jewish roots.
“I have a sense of belonging as a carioca — as someone from Rio [de Janeiro] — and as a Jewish carioca,” he said.
Nirenberg’s sense of identity is probably most apparent, musically, in the song “Nirenberg in the Shtetl.” The song, with flavors of klezmer and jazz and Brazilian rhythms, is dedicated to his grandfather, Jacques Nirenberg. Jacques moved to Rio with his family as a kid in the 1920s ahead of World War II and was Michel’s first music teacher.
“It just reminded me of him, the melody and the whole idea of it: the move he did from Europe to here and developing everything,” Nirenberg said. “So it’s a small tribute to him for all his support through my youth to this moment, and I call it ‘Nirenberg in the Shtetl’ because his family, they were from a shtetl, his father and his family, back in Poland.”
Nirenberg and his Brazilian Jazz Quartet perform at Jazzway 6004 in Baltimore on Saturday. He also performs at An Die Musik on Nov. 10.
The group performs original compositions that showcase Nirenberg’s musical upbringing in Brazil, his time studying jazz at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., as well as some of his Jewish musical influences.
It wasn’t just his grandfather who taught him music: Nirenberg’s mother teaches music, including traditional Jewish music, at a Jewish school in Rio, and his father, a professor of music, was a viola player in the Brazilian Symphony Orchestra for 40 years.
And while perhaps not all of his music will evoke images of the shtetl, Judaism has been a force throughout Nirenberg’s life, from his time going to a liberal Jewish school and his involvement in youth movements growing up to his three trips to Israel, the most recent of saw him tour around the country performing with an Israeli guitarist in January.
“I hope I can come back at some point,” he said of his Israeli tour. “It was amazing. It’s very welcoming to play there.”
Michel Nirenberg performs at Jazzway 6004, 6004 Hollins Ave., Baltimore, on Oct. 14 at 8 p.m. Tickets range from $18 to $38. Visit jazzyway6004.org for more information.