Recently one of the great American newspapers carried a long guide to recent recordings of world music in its arts pages. The article was thoughtful, intelligent and, for the most part, a splendid introduction to the field, covering everything from sub-Saharan Africa to Celtic music.
There was only one striking omission: the author didn’t discuss a single recording of Jewish music of any kind.
Allow me to jump into this vacuum to make a few suggestions from recordings that have been sitting on my desk in the past month or two. You can’t get much more worldly than these: Turkey, London, the Catskills, Broadway and the Lower East Side, with a two-CD title covering all that and just about everything else.
Theodore Bikel: “Treasury of Yiddish Folk and Theatre Songs” (Rhino)
In some circles a long-awaited reissue; if you’re my age, these sets got a lot of time on the turntable in your parents’ house back in the day.
Listening to these selections from three of his old albums, I was surprised by how good the instrumentalists (regrettably uncredited) were and by the sheer theatricality of Bikel’s approach to the songs. His hearty baritone is never unpleasant but occasionally unlovely, but the selection of material is a good survey of what would become the standard repertoire for an entire generation of Yiddish revivalists and New Klez bands.
Rating: AAAA, but add a star if this brings back fond memories of suburban finished-basement playrooms.
Blue Fringe: “My Awakening” (Sameach Music)
First, in the interest of full disclosure, allow me to point out that Dov Rosenblatt, who wrote most of the songs on this CD and is the vocalist and rhythm guitarist for Blue Fringe, is the son of our editor and publisher, Gary Rosenblatt. Good, hook-filled guitar-based alternative rock with echoes of Dave Matthews and Counting Crows, only it’s either liturgical texts or songs about being Jewish. Gotta love a band that can rhyme “nakhas” and “tukhas” on the smart, satirical “Flippin’ Out” and set “Hodu” to a driving beat. A very entertaining debut set.
“The Hidden Gate: Jewish Music Around the World” (Rounder Records)
One disk for the Sephardim, one disk for the Ashkenazim, and if the latter is pretty heavily weighted towards klezmer, at least it covers five continents. The Sephardic disk, which is much the longer of the two, is rather uneven, although the high points — India’s Romiel Daniel, a wild, jazz-inflected medley from Maurice El Medioni, a stunning a capella choral piece from Zimbabwe — are splendid. Surprisingly enough, it is the more familiar klezmer tradition that is richly represented with a disk that — of all things — could be the best party album of the year.
Isle of Klezbos: “Greetings from … the Isle of Klezbos” (Rhythm Media)
Isle, of course, is Eve Sicular’s all-female sextet, with several fellow members of Metropolitan Klezmer in attendance, and this is their long-awaited first CD. It was well worth the wait. Moodier, perhaps darker and certainly pitched to slower tempi than the Metros’ set, this is a satisfying first effort that allows the soloists to stretch a bit, while Sicular keeps rock-solid time as usual. Trumpeter Pam Fleming, also a Metro, makes some particularly telling contributions here. A fine debut.
Koby Israelite: “Dance of the Idiots” (Tzadik)
Israelite is an Israeli musician based in London, one of those musical polymaths who plays a dozen different instruments, all of them well, although he is particularly tasty as a drummer. His debut CD is a wild affair that swings from Middle Eastern jazz exotica to death metal accordion, from gentle to demonic (and demotic). It’s postmodern Jewish music at its most eclectic and great fun. Oh yeah, and you can dance to it.
Khupe: “Heymisher” (Yellowjacket Music)
Christian Dawid, clarinetist for Brave Old World and Budowitz, moonlights as one half a duo with accordionist Sanne Möricke under the name Khupe. On this their second CD of chamber klez, the pair occasionally explore some of the more abstract possibilities of their instruments, but this is surprisingly traditional music compared to, say Lerner and Moguilevsky, with few jazz or avant-gardist tendencies. Handsomely played and crisply recorded. Available from www.cdbaby.com or www.khupe.de.
“Maftirim: Judeo-Sufi Connection” (Kalan)
There is a musical tradition specific to Turkey called maftirim, a collaboration between Jewish mystics and members of a Sufi sect called Mevlani, and this recording is a stunning introduction to it. Haunting, even eerie at times, this is music built around long, complex melismatic phrases, ominous modes and strikingly simple instrumentation. Not to all tastes, perhaps, but unforgettable. The CD is part of a handsome package with a colorful multilingual book with lyrics and historical background. Available from Hatikvah Music at www.hatikvahmusic.com or (323) 655-7083.
Metropolitan Klezmer: “Surprising Finds” (Rhythm Media).
On their third CD, the Metros unveil a somewhat revamped lineup with the departure of original Metro sax player Steve Elson as the most significant change. Happily, Debra Kreisberg, who had joined the band for the previous set, takes over the reeds seat quite nicely. What results is a slight shift in emphasis from the frequently post-bop inflected improvisations of the band’s first two albums to a somewhat more “traditional” approach, with Michael Hess’s zither taking a more prominent role on tunes like “Terkisher Navratilova,” and big-band swing dominating on “Ot Azoy Neyt a Schneyder” and “Shpil du Fidl, Shpil.” Deborah Karpel’s vocals, which seemed a bit too self-conscious on the first two sets, have settled into a more relaxed, comfortable groove, and the use of old home recordings by her grandfather is a charming device. The only misstep on this otherwise excellent record is a vaguely tangofied “Pick a Pocket or Two,” which merely proves that Lionel Bart was no Irving Berlin. Otherwise, a terrifically entertaining CD.
Hadass Pal-Yarden: “Yahudice” (Kalan)
Pal-Yarden is an Israeli singer and ethnomusicologist who has been exploring Ladino song for several years. On this mostly secular collection of urban songs from Ottoman Jewry, Pal-Yarden has a pretty, almost pop voice but brings a gravitas to this material, an uncompromising concern for the integrity of the presentation that is impressive, with variant texts represented on most selections. The Greek material is particularly delightful. Like the other Kalan recording reviewed here, the CD is packaged with an elaborate little hardcover book. A recording that is not only historically important but great listening. Available from Hatikvah Music at www.hatikvahmusic.com or (323) 655-7083.