Friday, January 2, 2009

A Landslide of CDs from Mid-2008

As promised, here is a record column (actually, several of them) prepared for the fall but (mostly) unpublished. Some of these reviews managed to find their way into the Jewish Journal of LA, but the majority have not seen the light of day until now. Unhappily, the lead, which was timely in September, is more timely in January 2009. [One small technical note: I haven't linked to Hatikvah Music or CDBaby, because they are in the permanent links lists; other sources for individual albums, however, are linked directly.]

This is not a good time for Jewish music business-wise. The same trends that have injured mainstream music labels affect small niche labels, only more so, and the tottering national – make that global – economy doesn’t help. Of course, the industry mavens like to blame all their troubles on illegal downloaders, but I doubt if Jewish labels are the victims of massive piracy and their woes are, if anything, worse. Brick-and-mortar stores are disappearing, and legal downloads are not taking up the slack. I hear complaints from retailers, wholesalers and label honchos all over the Jewish music world. The irony is that this is happening at a time when artistically Jewish music has never been healthier. Across a remarkably broad range of genres, Jewish musicians are making vital art. The problem is that fewer people will hear it.

Of course, there is a solution. If everyone who reads this [blog] were to buy one of the fifteen records reviewed below . . . well, it wouldn’t alter the state of the economy, nor would it revive all the many dead or dying record labels that specialize in Jewish music, but as the Jewish joke goes, it couldn’t hurt.

Featured Recording: 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 www.cdbaby.com.) Rating: 5 stars.

Featured Recording: 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. Rating: 5 stars

Featured Recording: “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 (www.hatikvahmusic.com or phone 323 655-7083). Rating: 5 stars

Featured Recording: “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 (www.hatikvahmusic.com or phone 323 655-7083). Rating: 5 stars.

Cohen, Liat: “Variations Ladino” (Buda Musique). The sixth recording in the excellent series “Patrimoines Musicaux des Juifs de France,” this is pleasant recital by French classical guitarist Liat Cohen. She is joined by guitarist Ricardo Moyano and the Israeli male vocal duo The Parvarim for a set composed mostly of contemporary pieces written in the familiar Ladino styles that we have come to know from groups like Voice of the Turtle. The result is mostly a very sprightly and often surprisingly pop-sounding set, but there are moments of sober classicism, and Cohen is definitely a keeper. Available from Hatikvah Music (www.hatikvahmusic.com or phone 323 655-7083). Rating: 4 stars.

Kanter, Simcha: “Lag B’Omer Live” (IgraRama). Kanter’s new CD is a live set recorded on the festive day of Lag B’Omer, which comes towards the end of the Omer period, a period of mourning and restraint. There is an energy to this record that suggests the release that accompanies the cessation of 33 days of solemnity, and it is no small part of what makes the record rock. The repertoire owes a lot to Shlomo Carlebach but also to Atlantic r&b classics of the ‘60s, especially when Mike Lee is soloing on alto sax with a sound redolent of the great King Curtis. Kanter says at the beginning of the recording, “We do things differently,” and the opening strains of a reggae-powered “Shalom Aleichem” send a strong message that he’s not joking. Available from www.simchakanter.com. Rating: 4 stars.

Lapidus, Benjamin: “Herencia Judia” (Tresero). This is a gentle, genial album from the master of the tres, a Cuban folk instrument that is perched somewhere between guitar, mandolin and ukulele. Lapidus has included at least one Jewish number on each of his previous albums but this time the entire program is a seamless fusion of Afro-Caribbean and Jewish materials. The merger of son, plena, bomba and other Latin music forms with Hebrew liturgy is a pleasing one. There are also wonderful instrumental exchanges between Lapidus and guest Andy Statman on mandolin on two cuts and the gloriously shifting polyrhythms of an expert percussion section throughout. Available from www.treseroproductions.com. Rating: 4 stars.

Naim, Yael and David Donatien: “Yael Naim” (Atlantic/Tout ou Tard). It’s nice that the latest flavor of the month singer-songwriter is a Israeli-Tunisian woman who writes and sings in Hebrew, French and English. In fact, Naim has been around for a while, releasing an album in 2001, but this, her second, has drawn a lot more attention, in no small part because her song “New Soul” was used in a Mac Airbook commercial. She owes almost as big a debt to Joni Mitchell, Sade and Norah Jones, all of whom can be heard in her breathy little-girl-lost vocals. I find her singing too mannered, her writing alternately too arch and too self-pitying. But I never much liked Mitchell either, so take what you will from that. Rating: 2 ½ stars.

Ramatayim Men’s Choir, The: “400 Years of Synagogue Music” (self-produced). This is probably an excellent men’s chorus, and their choice of material, ranging from Salomone Rossi’s Adon Olam, written in the 17th Century, to contemporary compositions by Zvi Talmon and Sol Zim, looks innovative. The arrangements are complex, sophisticated and clever and as far as I can tell, well-sung. And therein lies the problem: the sound quality of the recording – at least on my copy of the CD – is murky, the harpsichord accompaniment sounds piercingly metallic and shrill and the overall effect is to render the entire disk unlistenable. Available from Hatikvah Music (www.hatikvahmusic.com or phone 323 655-7083). No rating given; if you can’t hear the music, you can’t make a judgment.

Schubert, Cantor Anita: “D’vora Ud’vash (Honeybee and Honey)” (self-produced). Schubert is the cantor at Temple Beth Sholom in Manchester, CT, an imaginative composer and arranger who has chosen to showcase her liturgical settings for congregational and choral singing on a CD. She has a sweet lyric soprano voice, which this set shows off to great advantage, and much of the writing here is quite pretty. Depending on your tolerance for children’s choirs, you might give this an extended listen. If you are looking for material for your own shul, you definitely should. Available from cdbaby.com/cd/anitaschubert. Rating: 3 ½ stars.

“Sephardi Voices from Sarajevo” (Saga). Another in the excellent series “La Tradicion Musical en Espana,” this set of field recordings is a vivid reminder that in the embattled city of Sarajevo, there were Jews as well as Muslims, Catholics and Eastern Orthodox. As anyone who has heard Flory Jagoda will add, those Jews have a rich musical tradition. Mind you, these recordings, made by the estimable Suzanne Weisch-Shahak, are of amateurs, mostly transplanted Sarajevans living in Israel, and the performances are anything but polished. Many of them make up in zeal for what they lack in technique and, as I have said of similar records in the past, the preservation of these musical traditions as passed down by people who lived them is of great importance. Available from Hatikvah Music (www.hatikvahmusic.com or phone 323 655-7083). Rating: 3 stars for performance, 4 ½ stars for significance.

Shapiro, Paul: “Essen” (Tzadik). The long-awaited debut recording by Shapiro’s “Ribs and Brisket Revue” is a wildly swinging blend of jump blues, Yiddish vaudeville and novelty song shtick, romping from a Cab Calloway chart for “Utt-Da-Zay” to an Anglophone “Grine Kuzine” as “My Little Cousin.” This is loud and raucous by design, with Shapiro doing everything but walking the bar on his solos, while Babi Floyd channels Cab, Slim Gaillard and the Barton Brothers in a hefty, gravelly belt. Brian Mitchell contributes some tasty solos and is even more effective in support. The band is just tight enough to seem very loose and the result is fun, but one suspects this aggregation is fresher live. Rating: 3 ½ stars.

Sisters of Sheynville: “Sheynville Express” (self-distributed). If you loved the Barry Sisters (a.k.a. the Bagelman Sisters), you will get a huge charge out of this swing-oriented all-female klezmer outfit, which doffs its collective caps to those estimable ladies. Based around the tight-harmony trio of Lenka Lichtenberg, Isabel Fryszberg and Fern Lindzon (who also plays piano), ably abetted by Lorie Wolf on drums, bassist Rachel Melas and clarinetist Kinneret Sagee, the Sisters offer up a nicely varied program. By changing tempi, moods and modes they draw attention away from the fact that the three voices are rather similar in timbre and range. But it doesn’t really matter because the choice of material (mostly Yiddish vaudeville and theater standards, but with an occasional curveball like “I’m an Old Cowhand” or the Delmore Brothers “Blues Stay Away from Me”) and the performances are adroit and intelligent. Available from www.sistersofsheynville.ca. Rating: 4 ½ stars.

Soul Aviv: “Soul Aviv” (self-distributed). Anyone remember a minor ‘70s band called Stoneground? They were formed for a traveling rock festival sponsored by Warner Brothers, which was making a film of the event. They had a powerhouse rhythm section, several strong female voices and a nice line of “blue-eyed soul,” as it used to be called. Soul Aviv is an LA-based band, led by guitarist Rob Raede, which reminds me a lot of Stoneground on the rockers on this debut CD. He’s assembled a very versatile trio of vocalists – Erin Berkowitz, Liat Wasserman and Jamie Green – and an eclectic repertoire ranging from Bill Withers’s chestnut “Lean on Me” to spirituals like “Wade in the Water,” in addition to three originals by Raede and another by Green. The thread that runs through this variegated program is an intelligent attempt to link Jewish themes and lyrics musically to the African-American gospel tradition, something I am wholly in favor of. Raede’s musicianship is commendable, the voices blend beautifully (think Tracy Nelson times three), and much of the material is nicely thought out. I’d like to hear a bit more grit, but I’m from the other coast, so you may take that for what it’s worth. Available from iTunes or www.cdbaby.com/cd/soulaviv. Rating: 4 stars.

Yankele: “Paris Klezmer” (Musique du Monde). Five excellent musicians doesn’t always add up to excellent music. This mixed bag of Franco-Yiddish skitters along the edge of kitsch, tottering but not quite toppling into bathos. There are exhilarating moments but it never feels much like klezmer, and they don’t have the burning passion of Les Yeux Noirs, the band they occasionally remind me of. Pleasant but unexceptional. Available from Hatikvah Music (www.hatikvahmusic.com or phone 323 655-7083). Rating: 3 stars

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