The CDs have been piling up on my desk in recent weeks. Happily, there are some real gems here, so clearing the desk is a pleasure. Hopefully, this will encourage you to grab some for yourself before the leaves turn. But get comfortable, because this will go on until the proverbial frost is on the proverbial pumpkin. Or the snow is on the chanukiyah.
Choral Music of Congregation Shearith Israel (self-distributed)
A CD in honor of the 350th anniversary of the founding of Shearith Israel, the Spanish and Portuguese congregation, which is the oldest Jewish congregation in North America. It has a rich, dense sound, a beautiful weaving of a dozen men’s voice a cappella. The first half pays tribute to composers with ties to the synagogue while the remainder focuses on some familiar names (Sulzer, Naumbourg, Rossi) and traditional pieces. Stately and dignified in the best sense of those words.
Rating: AAAA 2
Conservatoire de Musique de Geneve: “Les Psaumes” (Les Amis de Musique Juive).
Three masterful choirs, one Jewish, one Russian Orthodox and one Protestant, exploring the musical threads that unite them. Despite the title, “The Pslams,” this is largely liturgical music, and the performances are breathtaking. When the three groups merge for settings by the great Jewish Baroque composer Salomone Rossi, the result is nothing less than jaw dropping. Available from www.club-association.ch/amj.
Nigun: “KlezJazz” (Etnofon)
Impressive klezmer-inflected jazz set from a Hungarian band with some serious chops. Alto player Janos Vazsonyi reminds me of Lee Konitz at his fiery best, while clarinetist Daniel Vaezi has a lot of Perry Robinson going on. Great rhythm section work and inventive approach to oft-recorded pieces like “Shnirele Perele.” Available from www.passiondiscs.co.uk.
David Glukh Klezmer Ensemble: “Live From New York” (self-distributed)
A trio of Juilliard-trained classical musicians turn their hand to klezmer with mixed results. The instrumentation — piccolo trumpet, accordion and violin — is intriguingly offbeat and the playing has a precision and conciseness that is admirable, but there is a certain lack of fire. Docked a half-star for length (a miserly 34 minutes). Available from www.Glukh.com.
Eve’s Women: “Nashot Khava” (Self-distributed).
An impressive Israeli women’s band playing very satisfying Middle Eastern-cum-jazz fusion. Up-tempo numbers are particularly effective, with a nice ensemble swing. Bass player Daphna Sadeh has that Jimmy Garrison flamenco thing down cold and Orit Orbach’s clarinet is a throaty, blues-laden wonder. Docked a half star for length (40 minutes). Available from firstname.lastname@example.org.
Erik Friedlander: “Quake” (CryptoGramaphone)
Friedlander’s Topaz quartet (leader on cello, Andy Laster on reeds, the Takeishi brothers on bass and drums) plays elegant, occasionally cerebral post-bop jazz. Their latest collection of original tunes is an excellent example of how to bend the genre smartly, alternating between brooding, moody ballads and jagged, swirling up-tempo numbers that stop on a dime and reverse field like Walter Payton. Sometimes a little chilly, but a highly intelligent recording.
The Ivory Consort: “Music in the Land of Three Faiths” (Sefarad Records)
The Ivory Consort is another of Gerard Edery’s many projects (when does he sleep?), an aggregation founded by Jay Elfenbein to perform medieval music. This recording grows out of one of their programs, a showcase of the music of the golden age of Spain, when Muslim, Jewish and Christian musicians worked side by side in relative peace. The best material here has throbbing, thrusting rhythms redolent more of North Africa and the Middle East than of “classical” music. A nicely varied program, well performed.
Jason Rosenblatt and Shtreiml: “Harmonica Galitzianer” (self-distributed)
This one sort of slipped through the cracks, having been released last year, but it’s worth investigating. The idea of using diatonic harmonica (the kind blues harp players blow) as the lead instrument in a klezmer band is an interesting one and Rosenblatt is certainly an adept player. Too often, though, the reedy sound of Josh Dolgin’s accordion seems to merely echo Rosenblatt and the result is a rather narrow palette. On the plus side, the playing is certainly good and the group is energetic. A fun record, but it’s hard to see where they can go from here. Available from www.shtreiml.com.
Ben Perowsky: “Camp Songs” (Tzadik)
Or the Uri Caine Trio upside down. Drummer Perowsky, with help from Caine on piano and Drew Gress on bass, explores the Jewish tunes of his childhood in a smartly swinging set, mostly hard bop and post-bop including two mellifluous originals by the leader. These guys can play mainstream just fine, thanks, and the result is sharp as shokhet’s knife, with occasional side excursions into pastiche. Some totally unexpected items, like a Bill Evans-ish “Shema,” and Perowsky’s “Ashen,” with its haunting echoes of gamelan.
Shbahoth: Iraqi-Jewish Song from the 1920s (Renair Records)
Once upon a time Iraq had a large Jewish population, a community that dated back to ancient Babylonia and the earliest days of the diaspora. Not surprisingly, these Jews had their own, unique musical traditions, and this recording is evidence of how unusual those were. Plaintive, heavily influenced by Arabic modes, this is strange but powerful music. Despite some very wonky sound quality — these are remastered from old 78s after all — a fascinating CD. Available by e-mail from email@example.com.
Michael Strassfeld: “Songs to Open the Heart: Contemplative Niggunim” (self-distributed)
Rabbi Strassfeld is a fine writer and an important Jewish activist. He’s not a professional singer but this collection of nigunim, mostly from various chasidic traditions but a few of his own compositions as well, has a sort of sweetly homemade feeling to it. Despite some dubious intonation and the occasional misplaced gulp of air, Strassfeld conveys the charms of these wonderful tunes quite nicely. If you approach this record as if it were made by a favorite uncle and appreciate its kavanah, you will be pleasantly surprised.