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).

1 comment:

  1. Great list and wonderful blog on Jewish Music...thanks! Have you heard of The Klezmer Company Orchestra?

    Take a moment to listen to Klezmer Company Orchestra at to hear something special.

    This professional ensemble-in-residence at the Music Archives of the FAU Library takes Klezmer to a whole range of places through refreshing arrangements that honor the music's tradition yet push the envelope with renewed sophistication --- appealing to traditionalists and those looking for a musical experience.

    Click and listen to "2nd Avenue Hoedown" among other great cuts that'll get you hooked.

    Their performances are defined by well crafted arrangements passionately performed by the KCO, whose marvelous Jazz and Classical musicians under the leadership of music director, Aaron Kula, are based in South Florida and have received critical praise for their CD, "Beyond the Tribes."

    500 to 3,000 seat multi-media concert halls have hosted their ethnic hybrid of Latin Jazz infused Orchestral a dash of Mediterranean, Arabic and Gypsy influences to add even more flavor. KCO is a favorite amongst South Florida audiences.

    The following link --- --- is an article that appeared in the Palm Beach Post in anticipation of a recent Klezmer Company Orchestra concert that was extremely well received.

    "Beyond the Tribes" is on iTunes and available at Cd Baby among others.

    Listen and enjoy!