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.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

The Right Way to Handle an Economic Downturn

Earlier today, I received an impassioned e-mail from an arts lobbying group in New York State, trying desperately to avert a $7m cut in state arts funding. My first reaction was that, although I make my living in the arts as a film and music critic and reporter, I can think of even more worthwhile ways to spend tax dollars. (I spent 20 years as a volunteer in the Buddy Program of Gay Men's Health Crisis, so I'm particularly peeved about cutbacks in AIDS funding at the state and municipal levels, to choose one obvious example.)

Then I looked at a series of stories that appeared in The Art Newspaper, an excellent trade paper covering the visual arts world. The headlines say it all:

Government in France Increases Cultural Spending
Government in Germany Increases Cultural Spending
Government in Israel Increases Cultural Spending

Two thoughts occur to me after reading these stories. First, The Art Newspaper needs some new headline writers and, second and more seriously, here are three western nations, each of them with plenty of problems caused by the worldwide economic -- oh hell, let's call it what it is -- depression, that have decided to use cultural spending as a kind of pump-priming mechanism, secure in the belief that major cultural projects create jobs, promote tourism and help keep money moving through their national economies.

Pretty radical idea, that. Somewhere, Jesse Helms is rotating mighty fast, I hope. In fact, UNESCO has recommended that member states have culture budgets that are 1% of the national budget. I'd love to see Congress implement that number in the U.S. The 2008 federal budget totals $2.9 trillion, which means that NEA funding would be just under $3bn. In fact, for FY 2008, the NEA budget is $144.7 million, the NEA's about the same. There are, undoubtedly, other culture-related items in the federal budget (the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, for example), but I'm betting that they don't bring total to $2.9 bn.

When President-elect Obama is thinking about economic stimulus, I hope he includes cultural funding in his infrastructure package. Franklin Roosevelt did, and the WPA was one of the great examples of what can be done by a government that is willing to put money into the cultural realm without meddling in the content of the programs that result. I guess I will write that letter after all. (And if you are a New York State resident, you can do likewise here.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Off-Topic but Very Important

Important event in Washington Heights, Sunday January 18

On Sunday, January 18 at 1:30 p.m. Hebrew Tabernacle and Beth Am, the People's Temple will be hosting their third annual Amnesty International Write-a-Thon. Here is an opportunity to save a human life by doing something as simple as writing a letter. During last year's Global Write-a-thon, people in more than 30 countries sent over 150,000 letters, postcards and emails on behalf of prisoners of conscience, human rights defenders, and others at risk. At least three of the prisoners were freed because of your support.

At HT-BA, we sent out over a hundred letters in one afternoon. And you won't even have to pay the postage. Plus, we'll supply soda and pizza. It's a great opportunity to contribute to the ongoing struggle for human rights and share a pleasant afternoon with friends and neighbors.

When: Sunday, January 18, 1:30 p.m.
Where: Hebrew Tabernacle Congregation, 551 Fort Washington Avenue (at 185th St.)
For directions go to or phone 212-568-8304.

I look forward to seeing you there.

News and Housekeeping

Well, it didn't take very long did it? I mean, this was supposed to be a write-up of my interview with Yale Strom and Elizabeth Schwartz. Those of you who are longtime regular readers of my film blog (plug.plug.plug), are probably resigned to my inability to keep to a schedule previously announced. But in the first week?

Yeah, but as I'm sure you will all admit, paying work comes first. Deadlines prevailed and I will get to that inteview before the week is out.

In the meantime, there are some great events coming up that are worth your venturing out in the frozen rain, snow and -- okay, in LA it's probably 80 degrees and sunny, even though it's about 10 at night there as I write this.

A.J. Teshin, whose album, The Kurt Weill Project, I'll be reviewing later this week (I promise!), is doing a piano-and-voice set of Weill Friday evening, 1/9 at the MBar (Vine Plaza on the corner of Vine and Fountain, 1253 Vine Street, Hollywood, CA). Reservations are a necessity; phone number is 323-856-0036. I have some misgivings about the album, but Teshin has a beautiful voice and does Weill proud.

Yoshie Fruchter and his jazz-rock-noise-punk-Jewish music band, Pitom, are playing Saturday night, 1/10 at The Jewish Music Café (401 9th Street, Brooklyn, NY) with Benji Fox-Rosen's Minutn Fun Bitokhn. The show starts at 8 pm.

Ayelet Rose Gottlieb will be playing the same night as part of the NYC Winter Jazzfest. For more info, go here.

Same night, same town, Ryan Cohan and Omer Avital meet up for a program that will include the world premiere of Avital's "Song of a Land." Saturday, January 10, 2009 at 8:00pm, Merkin Concert Hall ( 129 West 67th Street, between Broadway and Amsterdam).

Finally, Sunday afternoon in the lovely town of Madison, CT (where I've occasionally been guest speaker at their Sunday Cinema Club), Josh Horowitz and Cookie Siegelstein, two-thirds of Veretski Pass, will be performing at the Scranton Library.For directions to Scranton Library or to RSVP, please call (203)265-7365.

Monday, January 5, 2009

My Ten-Best List for 2008

Hey, you don't know how good you've got it; my ten-best films list won't be posted until March. (Really. I'm not kidding. Go to my other blog and you'll find out why.)

In terms of sheer volume this year saw the proverbial bumper crop of Jewish music recordings in release. Fortunately, the quality was outstanding as well. In fact, the only reason this year’s best-of list has only ten recordings on it – each of them awarded five stars here earlier this year, is because the backlog of CDs in our office is so huge. That said, it was another annus mirabilis for diversity as well. This year’s best recordings include everything from jazz-meets-hazonos to European-style klezmer, from Yemenite songs and poetry to liturgy set as electric blues. In short, the usual wildly variegated auditory rainbow that is Jewish music. May 2009 be as fertile!

Afro-Semitic Experience, The: “Yizkor – Music of Memory” (Reckless DC Music). From the opening bass notes of this set, stating the theme of David Chevan’s “Mah Adam,” you know you are in the hands of some powerful musical voices – centered, focused, inventive. I’ve always thought that bassist Chevan and pianist Warren Byrd, the band’s founders and leaders, derived a lot of their inspiration from the mystical wing of the ‘60s jazz avant-garde, from the likes of John and Alice Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders. This brilliant recording confirms that notion. Unlike Sanders and some of his groups, though, this band is calm even when storming, precise yet loose. Add to the mix the radiant voice of Cantor Alberto Mizrachi floating above the churning rhythm section and cooing reed players, and Chevan’s forceful settings of the Yizkor liturgy and you have the Afro-Semitic Experience’s best CD to date and one of the most fruitful fusions of jazz and hazanut yet recorded. (Available from

Greenbaum, Adrianne: “FleytMuzik In Kontsert” (self-distributed). I recently wrote a lengthy piece on the rise of “old-world” klezmer” in which I managed to discuss at length the violin and the tsimbl and the search for new sources of repertoire without once mentioning the place of the flute in this music. This live set from Adrianne Greenbaum offers an hour’s worth of testimony to my . . . let’s call it an oversight since there may be children listening. Greenbaum probably knows as much about klezmer flute as anyone in the world today, and with nine flutes in her collection used on this set she gives a double meaning to the old jazz compliment, “she plays a lot of flute.” Excellent performances by Greenbaum, Jake Shulman-Ment, Pete Rushefsky and Brian Glassman, and a wonderful collection of new and/or unfamiliar tunes. What more could you asked for in a klezmer album? Available from

Ljova and the Kontraband: “Mnemosyne” (Kapustnik Records). When you make a first record as good as Ljova’s, there’s always a worry of “second album syndrome,” or what ballplayers call the sophomore jinx. Don’t worry about it. As good as “Vjola: World on Four Strings” was, this new CD is even better, with the band itself gelling beautifully and Ljova’s writing stronger than ever. You can tell from the opening notes of the album, a strange, scratchy but muted cacophony of percussion effects, that this will be an edgier, nervier package than its predecessor, and there is plenty of risk-taking present. But the simple beauties of the first album have multiplied here into something more complex and richer, reaching for the sublime. Much of the first two-thirds of the record is somber, almost melancholic, but the last two cuts “”Gone Crazy” and “Bagel on the Malecon Reprise” are almost giddy by comparison. All the pieces fit together here, from guest artists like William Schimmel and Frank London to the contributions of the other band members, Patrick Farrell on accordion, Mike Savino on bass and Mathias Kunzli on drums, and Inna Barmash’s three vocals are all superb. Most important, Ljova himself is an extraordinarily expressive violist and a gifted composer. Available from CDBaby.

Monk, Meredith: “Impermanence” (ECM). Monk is one of the giants of the post-‘60s avant-garde, a brilliant performer, composer, choreographer, filmmaker, who has created some remarkably theatrical events using a hand-picked, personally trained ensemble of singer-dancer-performance artists. Monk has said, “"I work in between the cracks, where the voice starts dancing, where the body starts singing, where theater becomes cinema." The new CD preserves (in defiance of its title) her 16-part suite written in the wake of the death of her long-time partner Mieke van Hoek and, as the title suggests, it is a meditation on the evanescence of our lives. The piece begins with a somberly beautiful piano-and-voice by Monk and pianist Allison Sniffin, an astonishing showcase for her vocal pyrotechnics that never loses sight of its intent. With each additional selection, she adds more elements to her palette and the suite builds slowly in a manner that occasionally recalls the early minimalism of Steve Reich et al. In addition to her always superb vocal ensemble, the performances by Sniffin on piano and violin, Bohdan Hilash on woodwinds and John Hollenbeck on percussion are more than noteworthy. Monk’s work has always been refreshingly open in its feelings, even when there are few words, but she has never been more emotionally naked than she is here, and the result is a triumph, the capstone to a brilliant career.

Red Hot Chachkas: “Spice It Up!” (self-distributed). Here’s the kind of frustration that makes the lives of musicians who dedicate themselves to Jewish music so thankless: this second set from the Bay Area-based Chachkas is their first in over five years. Their last CD merited one of my infrequent five-star reviews, and the wait for the new one was downright painful – but definitely worth the pain. This is a playful group with a sense of humor; as proven by such little gems as the reggae intro to “Chosidl Diddle,” or the crazy clockwork and fractured square dance riff of “Stomp It Up,” written by their new clarinetist Barbara Speed. Another fun recording with great musicianship. Available from

“Shtetl Superstars: Funky Jewish Sounds From Around the World” (Trikont), I count it significant that several of the most interesting records under review here come from European or Israeli artists, one of the signs of health that I mentioned above. This sampler ranges all over the place, from thunderous hip-hop of Balkan Beat Box to the ornately rhythmic-romantic klezmer of Oi-Va-Voi, from the mash-up inventions of Solomon and So-Called (featuring Oi-Va-Voi’s Sophie Solomon) to the ska-and-reggae stylings of King Django and Dave Gould. Some of these bands will be familiar, others less so, and you probably won’t like everything on the CD, but as an introduction to the newer trends in post-klemer-revival Jewish music, this is an excellent collection. Available from Hatikvah Music ( or phone 323 655-7083).

“A Song of Dawn: The Jerusalem Sephadi Baqqashot at the Har Tziyon Synagogue” (Jewish Music Research Centre). This is an extraordinary package, six CDs preserving a unique and little-known liturgical-musical tradition practiced in a small number of Sephardic congregations on Jerusalem. The baqqashot are poems/prayers of petition to God and, like the piyutim, a specifically Sephardi tradition. The recordings here have the double value of being authentic field recordings (Har Tziyon performs its baqqashot on Thursday mornings, so Essica Marks, the ethnomusicologist involved in this project, was allowed to record during a service) and the work of a surprisingly accomplished choir of non-professionals, led by Abraham Caspi, the synagogue’s cantor. From the throbbing, pulsating “El mistater (God is concealed)” that opens the first CD, through to the final cut, a melancholy Kaddish sung by Caspi, this is powerfully moving music and, unlike most field recordings, the performances are surprisingly polished. Not to be digested in a single sitting (there are nearly eight hours of music here), this is a rich resource to be dipped into at length and leisure. Available from Hatikvah Music ( or phone 323 655-7083). .

Sway Machinery, The: “The Sway Machinery EP” (JDub). If your only exposure to Jeremiah Lockwood and his band was their first CD, a creative but uncompromising excursion into post-punk crash, or his brilliant solo album, with its strange, fractured delta blues, then you are not prepared for this EP. Quite simply, this record is dazzling, a genuinely unique reinterpretation of Jewish religious music that draws on the sinister drone of North Mississippi bluesmen like R.L. Burnside, classical hazanut, post-rock instrumentals, funk horn charts, David Bowie circa “Let’s Dance” and Hasidic storytelling. The set has only six tunes and last a little over 25 minutes, but it’s as striking as anything you’ll hear this year.

Veretski Pass: “Trafik” (Golden Horn). This is a veritable Old World Klez supergroup, with Joshua Horowitz, Stuart Brotman and Cookie Siegelstein together for a second set of Yiddish dance music. Like the first one, which was a five-star effort according to this column, this is a collection of 30 brief tunes, brilliantly played. Siegelstein brings real fire to the threesome, with a biting tone (imagine Jackie McLean as a fiddler) and deft touch. Brotman’s arco playing conveys an underlying melancholy to even the jauntiest of tunes like “Curly Wolf Patch” and Horowitz is equally at home on tsimbl and 19th-century accordion. On a tune like “Noisy Dog,” you hear uncanny echoes (or anticipation) of the American fiddle standards that are the staple of bluegrass jams and square dances, but with the tang of fresh garlic. What else can I say? They’ve done it again, so go buy it.

“With Songs They Respond: The Diwan of the Jews from Central Yemen” (Jewish Music Research Centre). In Yemenite Jewish society, the diwan is a collection of men’s poetry, song and dance, passed on orally and in writing. This two-CD set from the Jewish Music Research Centre at Hebrew University, is a particularly beautiful example of the genre (albeit without dance of course). In the half-century since the Yemenite Jews were brought to Israel, their traditions have undergone several major changes, but the music is still quite lovely, ornate, pulsating and, on this recording, handsomely song and played. As usual, the scholars at the JMRC have oudone themselves in the packaging of this set, which includes a hard-back book of some 200 pages in English and Hebrew. This is one occasion when the music itself is every bit as good to hear as it is to have preserved. Available from Hatikvah Music ( or phone 323 655-7083).