Wednesday, September 9, 2009

I'm Not Dead Yet

It was a long and painful summer. One of our cats died suddenly and the other is probably going to have to go to a new home since she and Margo can't co-exist peacefully. Work has been unsteady when not non-existent. If the President is planning an economic recovery, I hope it happens soon.

But it's not all sturm and drang (that famous Austrian dance team). The fall is looking most promising for Jewish music, as you can see from my music preview here and here, and my first record column in ages. And hey, Diwon, sorry about the picture.

May you and yours have a healthy and secure new year.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Hie Yourself Down to Eldridge Street . . . .

It's been the kind of day in which the BBC seems thrilled that Malta has made it to the finals of the Eurovision song contest. No. Really. You can't make this stuff up. And why would you? Israel is also one of the finalists, which reminds me of a discussion on the Jewish Music e-mail list a few years ago. People were debating whether Julio Iglesias was descended from crypto-Jews; my response was that I was still apologizing to everyone for Barry Manilow.

So I'm happy to push you in a more fruitful musical direction with the premiere of Yale Strom's short documentary about the epochal photo of over 100 klezmer and Yiddish standouts, "A Great Day on Eldridge Street," and a concert by Strom and numerous guests that will be part of the evening. You can see my review here, and find more information at the Museum at Eldridge Street's website.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Two CDs Reviewed -- I Told You I Was Back

The pile of unheard recordings on my desk threatens to topple over the give me a subdural hematoma (did I spell that right, TV med show fans?). So the simple solution is to start whittling it down. Ergo . . . .

Klez Dispensers, The: “Say You’ll Understand” (self-distributed). This is a rather schizophrenic album, swinging between the kind of big-band klez-jazz swing of early KCB and the straight post-Ellis Island klezmer of the Yiddish radio era. Happily, this octet is adept at both styles. But it would be nice to see them try to find a musical space in which they could be integrated. They come close on “Gregg’s Hora,” an instrumental that swerves from the bumping rhythm of a doina into a graceful waltz, but most of the set’s 13 cuts fall into one of the two camps. An entertaining album, but I think they can do more. Rating: 4 stars. Available from

A.J. Teshin: “The Kurt Weill Project” (LML Music). A.J. Teshin has one of those gloriously pure high tenor voices that could break your heart singing “Pop Goes the Weasel.” It’s the voice that Michael Feinstein thinks he has. And when you apply that voice to the best Kurt Weill ballads the results are meltingly lovely. That’s the good news. The bad news is that Teshin felt he had to do something to modernize Weill for a contemporary audience and as the producer of the CD he went a little overboard, adding dance beats, sound effects and the occasional unnecessary aside. If you can mentally strip away all the added paraphernalia and just listen to Teshin sing, you’ll be rewarded by some very fine interpretations of Weill. For his next album, I’d like to hear him with a simple piano trio. Rating: 3 stars. To hear some of the album or to purchase it, go to

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Mamma, That Man's Back Again


That was some infection. Three-and-a-half months’ worth.

No, not really. I can’t even explain the long, long silence, although if you are a regular reader of Jewish Week, you know I’ve been anything but silent. It’s not even that I’ve been so preoccupied with paying work – or the lack thereof – that I couldn’t find the time for the blog(s). I suppose it’s a case of the cobbler’s barefoot offspring. Consider this some kind of an apology. The half-assed kind.

I’ve been listening to a lot of ‘70s free jazz in the past week or two, focusing a lot on the spiritually driven stuff spawned by John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. So it’s been a steady musical diet of Pharoah Sanders, Leon Thomas, Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre and the like, a sentimental journey, if you wish, to the loft jazz scene of my college days. Back then I was probably more at ease with the political music coming from Archie Shepp et al., but the attraction of the spiritual search was undeniable. If you’ve read Essential Judaism, you know that when I hit my thirties I began my own spiritual searching, leading me back to Judaism, in no small part through music.

So what was I looking for last week? Probably my youth, maybe another source of musical religiosity. But you can find a very fine, specifically Jewish version of the spiritual free jazz of the ‘70s in the work of Greg Wall and Later Prophets, whose new CD, Ha’Orot, I’ll be reviewing in a few days. Wall is someone who has moved seamlessly from avant-garde jazz into the rabbinate without abandoning his musical pulpit. The new set was inspired by HaRav Avraham Kook, one of the most invigorating Jewish thinkers of the 20th century. It’s also the impetus behind excellent Jewish-themed jazz albums from the Afro-Semitic Experience and Frank London, to name a couple of outstanding examples. What’s nice – for me – is that connecting to these works is like delving into my own roots twice over.

Actually what triggered this line of thinking probably was listening to and interviewing tenor saxophonist Noah Preminger. The result of that process can be read here.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Long Silence . . .

I seem to be incubating a low-grade infection of some sort. I'm sleeping around the clock at odd hours (yeah, I do that anyway) and generally feeling listless. I keep up with the paying work, though and have a couple of new pieces at Jewish Week as usual. I think that readers of this blog will find my piece on unpublished Mendelssohn materials particularly interesting. I was particularly fascinated by Stephen Somary's remarks about Mendelssohn's possibly gravitating back to Judaism.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Two Days, A Lot of Music and Very Little Sleep

Sounds like the title of a Theo Angelopoulos film starring John Malkovich and Marcello Mastroianni, but it's really a description of the last couple of days in which I did Schmooze and Oyhoo. I'll have a lot more to say about that shortly. Right now, I'm looking out the window at snow falling and preparing to go back to bed.

Monday, January 12, 2009

A Couple of Quick Notes

I could blame my day-long silence on Spurs' dreadful showing against Wigan -- Jeez, Harry, what's wrong with you guys? -- or the abrupt departure of the Giants from the playoff scene (although I expected that one), but in truth it's a combination of deadlines and indolence. I just look out the window and see all that snow, ice and what-have-you and think, "why should I lift a finger, it's miserable out there."

In fact, I did pry my sorry self out of the house Sunday for a pleasant lunch with my friend and colleague Bob Lamm, a prelude to an invigorating chamber music concert by the Motyl Chamber Ensemble at Weill Recital Hall, Carnegie Hall. What makes that apposite for inclusion here is that the group's stated goal is to "present music written by composers who were victims of the Nazi regime." Of course, the overwhelming majority of those musicians were Jewish, including all four of the composers whose work was on display yesterday afternoon. Motyl is an all-women group, although their numbers were augmented at Weill by tenor Erik Nelson Werner, who brought a strong voice and stage presence to bear on song cycles by Mieczyslaw Weinberg (a U.S. premiere of a handful yiddish versdes by Shmuel Halkin, which Weinberg set during the war) and Robert Kahn. In some ways it is a somber program, not so much for the circumstances in which the composers found themselves, but more for the dark rumblings of early modernism in works like the Weinberg songs and Karl Weigl's forceful String Quartet No. 3 in A Major, Op. 4, which received a particularly stirring reading from Julie Artzt Becker and Aleeza Wadler (violins), Anoush Simonian (viola) and Ellen Rose Silver (cello). Vivan Chang Freiheit provided admirable piano accompaniment for Werner (although in their very first foray, a serenade from Don Giovanni that provided the basis for improvisation and variations by Hans Gal, which followed, she threatened to overwhelm him; I hesitate to mention it, because the problem could be acoustical rather than musical, and their subsequent collaborations betrayed no such problems).

On the whole, an afternoon well-spent (for me, if not for the Giants or Tottenham). Happily, this New York-based group is going to be performing several times this spring. For more information (and a few tantalizing sound clips) go to their website.

If time was scarce this weekend, it's only going to get worse over the next few days. Today is a deadline day, but I'll try to post a couple of record reviews before 24 hours have elapsed. Tuesday and Wednesday, however, are full up: Michael Dorf's annual Schmooze conference for Jewish arts presenters and artists, a fruitful venture for all concerned, and his Oyhoo Jewish Musical Heritage festival will be eating up all my time. I'm pretty sure tickets can still be had for the festival, which is utilizing some brand-new venues -- 92Y Tribeca and Dorf's own City Winery -- and the kind of star-power that Michael usually attracts. For more info check out the websites for City Winery, the Oyhoo Festival and 92Y Tribeca. I haven't decided where I'll be on those two nights -- I want to check out both halls and there's a lot of great music playing in both of them each night. We'll see. And if you find me there, you can buy me a beer. Or maybe a bisl seltzer.

Finally, you can also find me on Facebook where, for some mysterious reason, I am listed under my full -- very WASPy -- name, George Richard Robinson. (Don't ask me. I'll give you my mother's phone number and you can bother her.) I must say that, after only a few days of it, I find the Facebook experience fascinating and a bit overwhelming. I could never understand how someone could spend hours on line in chatrooms or messaging, but I'm beginning to see how it happens. I'm also beginning to sense how Facebook can be a brilliant marketing and community-building tool. Who knows? I may even use it that way sometime.