Sunday, January 4, 2009

And Now a Belated Hanukah Round-Up

Actually, only a few of these albmus had a direct Hanukah link, but with JDub was doing its annual Jewltide tour, it seemed like as good a time as any to review their most recent offerings, most of which I really liked.

Featured Recording: 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 Rating: 5 stars.

Featured Recording: 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. Rating: 5 stars.

Featured Recording: 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. Rating: 5 stars.

Abelson, Robert, and Joyce Rosenzweig: “A leyter tzum himl/A Ladder to Heaven” (self-distributed). Likie any good art song recital, this CD is a splendid balance of seriousness, elegance and a little playfulness. Abelson, whose baritone has darkened beautifully with the passage of time, is equally comfortable with songs of unrequited love (“”Oy Dortn, Dortn”), religious fervor (“A Nigun”) and sheer laugh-out-loud fun (would you believe a Yiddish version of Figaro’s aria from the Barber of Seville?). He effortlessly combines vocal mastery with a highly developed sense of theater, particularly on an old chestnut like “In Kheyder.” Rosenzweig has long been one of the most sensitive of accompanists, an art in itself, and she and Abelson have an empathetic rapport. Available from Rating: 4 1/2 stars.

Black, Rabbi Joe with the Maxwell Street Klezmer Band: “Eight Nights of Joy” (URJ Books and Music/Sounds Write). Black and the Maxwell Streeters had wanted to collaborate for a while and in December 2006 they finally did a benefit concert in Chicago, which is the source of this recording. Black is one of the better examples of the Reform movement’s folkie singer-songwriters; he’s a deft acoustic guitarist with a rich and flexible voice and – no small thing – a nicely judged sense of humor. Maxwell Street are unfairly overlooked as purveyors of jazz-inflected klezmer and on this set, their horn players and violinist Alex Koffman are particularly lively. The material is all over the place, from a kids-driven “Soufganiot” to a faux country “Yodel Dreidl,” but the best cuts are the instrumentals which allow the band to stretch out. Rating: 4 stars.

Cohen, Erran Baron: “Songs in the Key of Hanukah” (New Line). Yes, he’s Sasha’s brother, but he’s made a name for himself on dance floors around the globe, and on this set he has some heavy-duty collaborators, including Yasmin Levy, Idan Raichel and Y-Love. Unfortunately, the dominant voice is that of London DJ/producer Jules Brookes, who sounds like Johnny Mathis trying to sing the James Brown songbook. The end result is neither as mordant and clever as Socalled, nor as danceable as Raichel or even Cohen’s previous CDs. Rating 2 ½ stars.

Deleon: “Deleon” (JDub). Although Daniel Saks, the leader of this Brooklyn-based band, claims pre-Expulsion Spain as the primary flavor in this slippery but inventive stew, you can probably hear almost as much of Los Lobos or Los Lonely Boys as you might of romanceros. That they draw on Sephardic musical traditions is indisputable, but you aren’t likely to mistake them for Alhambra or Voice of the Turtle. The lightning flashes that carry them from one register to another are occasionally dizzying for their own sake, and the heavy beat underpinning everything is a bit repetitive, but the ideas are interesting, and on the strength of the rockin’ “La Ner V Livsomim” about half-way through the set, I’d like to see what they do on their second album. Rating: 3 stars.

Leverett, Margot and the Klezmer Mountain Boys: “2nd Avenue Square Dance” (Traditional Crossroads). When their first album came out, I thought that there was something askew in the concept behind this band, but the notion of a klezmer-bluegrass fusion was sufficiently unusual that I hoped that in time the elements would come together. On the basis of this new set, I must reluctantly conclude that I was right the first time. Reluctantly because the musicianship in this band is first-rate. Leverett is one of the best klezmer clarinetists on the planet, and she has surrounded herself with equally talented musicians; you can’t do much better than Kenny Kosek, Barry Mitterhoff, Joe Selly and Marty Confurius, not to mention guests like Tony Trischka, Darol Anger, Jorma Kaukonen and Hankus Netsky. But I still don’t hear a connection between the two halves of the equation, and that’s frustrating. Rating: 3 ½ stars (but the playing is a lot better than that).

Yosef, Tomer: “Laughing Underground” (JDub). One of the masterminds of Balkan Beat Box, Yosef is a fire-breathing Israeli rapper-singer-songwriter who has literally performed hanging upside-down from a beam over the stage during a BBB concert. This, his second solo album, owes as much to reggae and Middle-Eastern rock as to hip-hop. It’s strong on the liquid beats and rhythms of the region. Eminently danceable, this might not knock you on your butt the way BBB does; it’s more like a seduction, but the end result is just as funked-out and fun.( I do wish somebody had included a lyric sheet with translations. Maybe next time?) Rating: 4 stars.

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