Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Why this blog? Why now?

A new year, a new blog.

For those of you who are familiar with my writing in Jewish Week (NYC), the Jewish Journal of LA, the Detroit Jewish News, the Boston Jewish Advocate and, most recently, Hadassah Magazine, you know that I have a love of Jewish music that stretches across nearly all genre boundaries. And with the four weekly newspapers – on those rare occasions when all of them pick up one of my music pieces, I have a circulation of a quarter-million readers. Oh, and they pay me, too.

So why would I start a Jewish music blog, writing for free on many of the artists I would ordinarily be covering for money?

It’s certainly not out of some craving to see my name in print. (I used to speak regularly at conferences for aspiring writers, high school editors and the like; I always told them that they would quickly tire of the novelty of seeing their names above an article. Eventually, the only time they would get a thrill at the sight of their own name would be when it was preceded by the phrase “Pay to the order of . . . . “)

Actually, my decision to begin a Jewish music blog – and it was a decision not lightly undertaken – grew out of the collapsing American economy and its knock-on effect on the markets for which I write and the music I cover. Simply put, advertising budgets contract when the economy takes a downturn (especially when it looks like a death spiral), and when advertisers spend less, newspapers have fewer pages to devote to news. While the editors and publishers for whom I write have done an admirable job of keeping their arts coverage as extensive as possible, one area that has suffered is the amount of space available for record reviews. My editors would rather cover events with a short shelf life – live events or films that may disappear from theaters in a matter of a week or two – than what are called “evergreens” in the trade. Records are an evergreen and, sadly, I find it harder than ever to get record columns into the pages of Jewish newspapers.

That dilemma unfortunately coincides with an ongoing contraction in the music business. It gets harder to make and distribute recordings for some of the same reasons that there is less space to cover them. In the Jewish music world, bands make a living from live gigs. Except for the occasional breakout act like Matisyahu, nobody sells enough records to live from that revenue source. In a sense, releasing a CD is sort of like advertising that your band is available. ("We do weddings, bar mitzvahs, brisses, funerals – hey, we’ll even record an outgoing message for your answering machine! Ringtones for your cellphone? Wash your car?")

But creatively, this is a very exciting time to be playing – or covering – Jewish music. I’ve been on this beat for nearly twenty years and I can’t remember a time when I received more good music in the mail. Whether these recordings are loss leaders for a band, an ego boost or a genuine attempt to preserve on plastic the creativity of a group of musicians, they deserve to be heard.

And reviewed.

In short, the primary function of this blog will be to provide me with a place to review any Jewish music that crosses my desk. Right now, I have a backlog of some forty or more CDs that I haven’t been able to get to for the ‘papers. (And that’s not counting record columns that were filed and are awaiting publication.) I will try, time permitting, to review a CD a day, certainly until that backlog is gone. After that, we’ll just have to take them as they come, although I suspect that with a backlog this large, it will be a long time before the tank reads “empty.”

I also want to pull your coat to events, exhibitions, personalities and so on in the Jewish music world. Needless to say, you won’t find a huge number of lengthy interviews here – hey, I gotta eat – but there’s always more going on – especially in New York City, where I am based, still the largest Jewish community on the planet – than we can squeeze into a weekly newspaper, even when there are a lot more pages than we’ve been having lately. Finally, the one other kind of coverage that I seldom get the opportunity to provide is reactions to live music after the event; in general, my editors aren’t interested in reviews of stuff that our readers can’t go to, and that makes good sense. But there are times when I think it is important to tell you what I’ve seen and heard, and this venue is the perfect place for that. (Besides, it will force me to get off my, er, couch, and go out to see more live music.)

So you can expect a potpourri in this space. (Well, maybe a sort of “what’s-in-the-cupboard – throw-that-in-the-pot- too” kind of cholent.)

This blog is not in competition with Ari Davidow’s superb Klezmer Shack – you’ll find Ari at the top of the links list ‘cause that’s where he belongs. His coverage is both unique and madly comprehensive, and his site is one of the absolutely priceless on-line resources in Jewish music. And, needless to say, I’m not competing with the newspapers that have been a home for my writing for so long. Think of this as a supplement to the arts coverage you’ll find in their pages and on their websites.

And to all the Jewish music bloggers, retailers, wholesalers and, most of all, musicians and listeners, a blessed and healthy secular new year. May 2009 bring a revival of the economy that spurs the growth of Jewish music everywhere.

These Are the Rules . . .

Here are a few ground rules (and if you are a long-time reader of my record columns in New York and LA, you’ve probably heard this to death, so skip it) or words of caution.

I came to Jewish music from jazz and blues, which also led me to rock ‘n’ roll (albeit a long time ago), and my values were formed by jazz and blues. That doesn’t mean that I try to apply some rigid set of aesthetics that is inappropriate to Jewish music (well, I hope it doesn’t); it just means that I place a premium on invention and the ability to create art that relates to a larger historical tradition. That is, I think, a good way to judge Jewish music in particular – l’dor va-dor, khevre!

When I first started writing on Jewish music, the bulk of what I was sent was klezmer. That is still the case, although the imbalance is not nearly as great as it used to be. Mind you, I love klezmer in its many faces, with all its hyphenated forms. But Jewish music doesn’t begin or end there. One thing you can count on, I’ll be reviewing a lot of Jewish jazz musicians whose music has perhaps only a tangential relationship to Judaism, although the growing wave of very good young Israeli players certainly bring more of the Middle-Eastern flavor to the table. I’m not foolish enough to claim expertise in Sephardic, Mizrahi, Hasidic or any other of the countless other Jewish musics that are out there. I try to listen with big ears, and my taste is pretty eclectic.

That is not to say I listen uncritically. And I certainly have some strong prejudices, the most significant of which I will readily reveal, by way of full disclosure and to prepare you for some of the things you won’t find here. I have a deep and powerful dislike of “smooth jazz;” it’s smooth, all right, but it’s not jazz. So if Kenny G decides to do another shabbes album, you won’t find it reviewed here. I have an enormous respect for Debby Friedman and her many musical followers, and I know that many Jews find her music moving and spiritually profound for them; but I do not, and while I won’t stoop to lashon hara against her, I also won’t review her music or much of the Reform songleader style that developed parallel to her. (For the record, I was raised as a Reform Jew and still am one, albeit more observant now than when I was young. My objection is not to the ideological/theological content of the material; I feel the same way about the ‘60s folkies, too, with the notable exceptions of Dylan and a very few others.) I tend to review almost any Jewish music CD that crosses my desk, but I will admit that I hold professional musicians recording professionally to a higher standard than I do people who clearly are making a recording as a way of preserving their synagogue’s minhagim (or raising money by getting their Hebrew School parents to buy a record that their kid is on). Incidentally, I generally don’t review children’s music either; I don’t have kids of my own, the children of my friends from shul are all too old by now and it’s been a long time since I was young enough to appreciate the stuff myself.

It’s not fair for me to pass judgment on music with which I am totally out of sympathy. So you won’t find any of the subgenres I just mentioned represented here. I’m not saying that there isn’t a need for negative criticism of this stuff, I just don’t feel like doing it myself. There’s too much out there that engages my mind and soul and heart, music that I want to tell you about, for me to waste your time and mine. If you are an aficionado of smooth jazz, Debby Friedman or children’s music, please accept my apologies, you’ve come to the wrong place. (You could always start your own blog, you know. I recommend it.)

When I began writing a regular record column in Jewish Week, one of my role models was Robert Christgau, whose Consumers’ Guide column was one of the best reasons for reading the Village Voice. Christgau is gone, along with so many other Voice stalwarts, and there are a lot fewer reasons to read the Voice, even if it is free. And after almost two decades I feel pretty secure that my own voice comes through in my record reviews. However, I retained one of the features that I adapted from Christgau (and Downbeat, truth be told), a numerical grading system. (Christgau used letter grades, but it’s the same thing.) Echoing Downbeat, I assigned a grade ranging from five stars to zero stars. For what it’s worth, I think I’ve only given a zero-star rating once in all the time I’ve done the column, and I can’t – and won’t – remember what it was for. For the moment, I will continue the star ratings, but I’m open to comment on whether to keep them and may decide to drop them on my own.

For the time being, though, here’s the rundown:

Five stars = An excellent recording; a work of originality, inventiveness and exceptional execution. You can expect to see this on my year-end best-of list and you should go out and buy copies for yourself and everyone you know.

Four stars = Very good; the difference between five, 4 ½ and four stars may be very small, anything from one cut that doesn’t work to a bad sound mix on an otherwise admirable album. Rest assured, a four-star album is undoubtedly worth hearing, particularly if the genre and/or artist(s) appeal to you.

Three stars = Good. Workmanlike, solid, unpretentious, a recording you will want if you are a big fan of the artist(s), but probably not the best introduction to the work of an old hand. I like three-star records, but I don’t love them, if you know what I mean.

Two stars = Fair; a few good moments but not enough to save the record. Usually there is at least one major element – the composition, the lyrics, something important in the performances – that just doesn’t cut it. You might buy a couple of cuts from iTunes, but unless you really are a completist, you won’t want the whole record. (Oh brave new world, where you can buy a couple of cuts off a record!)

One star = Poor. Let’s not kid ourselves, some records aren’t released, they escape. This category is the reason why I don’t review genres I don’t like. It’s just not fair to give a blanket 0ne-star rating to an entire style of music (although it’s tempting).

No stars = Oy. Ahmedinejad should only have to listen to this record!

A Couple of Final Caveats

Like Christgau, I dock CDs a star for short running times when they sell for full price; the CD technology makes it possible to get over an hour of music on a single disk, and the record companies charge accordingly. You shouldn’t have to pay LP prices for an EP. Doesn’t happen often anymore, but when it does, you’ll hear my head explode for blocks.

With no disrespect to major-label artists, I believe my mandate here is to draw attention to music-makers who don’t get a big enough share of the spotlight – usually damned near none at all. The number of Jewish musicians who fall under the major-label category is pretty small – Matisyahu, Bob Dylan, Lou Reed maybe – and while I certainly won’t ignore them, they aren’t the first priority here. So you’re more likely to find JDub or modular moods or Oriente or a lot of self-produced records than Sony or whoever.

Last but not least, when I began Cine-Journal, my film blog (which you can find here, and I urge you to read it, of course), in order to give readers a quick-and-dirty introduction to my taste and aesthetic, I included my most recent ten-best films list and an all-time list as well. I’ve never done an all-time list – I wouldn’t even know how to start – but here are a couple of my recent best-of lists, in alphabetical order:


Morton Feldman: String Quartet (1979) (Naxos)

German Goldenshteyn: A Living Tradition (Living Traditions)

The Klezmatics: Wonder Wheel (JMG)

David Krakauer and Socalled w/Klezmer Madness!: Bubbemeises: Lies My Gramma Told Me (Label Bleu)

Ljova: Vjola--World on Four Strings (Kapustnik)

Jeremiah Lockwood: American Primitive (Vee-Ron)

Frank London: Hazanos (Tzadik)

Roy Nathanson: Sotto Voce (AUM Fidelity)

Andy Statman: East Flatbush Blues and Awakening from Above (Shefa)


Balkan Beat Box: Nu-Med (JDub)

Budowitz: Live (Golden Horn)

Anat Cohen and the Anzic Orchestra: Noir (Anzic)

Peter Himmelman: The Pigeons Couldn’t Sleep (Himmasongs)

The Joel Rubin Ensemble: Midnight Prayer (Traditional Crossroads)

Metropolitan Klezmer: Traveling Show (Rhythm Media)

Pharoah’s Daughter: Haran (Oy!hoo)

The Polina Shepherd Vocal Experience (featuring Quartet Ashkenazim): Baym Taykh (Oriente)


Tomorrow: A huge round-up of records from 2008

Sunday: Still more 2008 goodies

Monday: My ten-best list for 2008

Tuesday: While Xmas carols droned in Starbucks, I chatted with Yale Strom and Elizabeth Schwartz

Wednesday: The Klez Dispensers celebrate an anniversary

Thursday: A new take on Kurt Weill standards



Tuesday, December 16, 2008

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