This was a year in which recorded Jewish music seems to have been dominated by women. Certainly the CDs that have stayed with me the longest in 2010 are the work of some tremendously talented female singers, songwriters, composers and instrumentalists. So here’s a list of some recordings that have haunted me and delighted me since the first time I heard them. Not exactly a top 10 list, but not a bad yardstick to go by.
Judith Berkson: “Oylam” (ECM)
With her quirky, funny little tunes almost like nursery rhymes and her knack for singing complicated lines in unison with her piano playing, Berkson reminds me of soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy and his wife Irene Aebi. Berkson’s piano playing is a textbook in the creative use of the pedals, married to a deliciously quirky sense of rhythm. And the a cappella multi-tracked version of “Hulyet, Hulyet” is worth the price of the set by itself. An unconventional but thoroughly winning album by an upcoming talent.
Clare Burson: “Silver and Ash” (Rounder)
This was Burson’s breakthrough set, a deeply personal recording inspired by her grandparents’ experiences fleeing the Nazis. An unlikely source for an artist to build a new audience perhaps, but Burson’s bittersweet take on family and tragedy is genuine and intelligent. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about “Silver and Ash” is how variegated it is, with Burson displaying a wide range of colors and moods. The album has carried her into unexpected places, ranging from NPR to MTV. She is one of the best of the current crop of alt-rock singer-songwriter types and I suspect this is merely one in a series of powerful recordings.
Adrienne Cooper: “Enchanted: A New Generation of Yiddishsong” (Golden Horn)
About a third of the way into her latest album, Adrienne Cooper can be heard gurgling and giggling behind her grandfather, who is singing a cantorial piece. The recording dates from the 1940s, so Cooper can be forgiven as a pre-toddler for not showing off her vocal chops to greater effect. Happily, she makes up for that lacuna on the rest of this spirited collection of new Yiddish songs. The inclusion of the old family recording, along with the participation of her daughter on several cuts of the new CD, places Cooper strongly and overtly in an unbroken chain of Yiddish singers. She has long been one of the best, and it is a pleasure to hear her working on new material of considerable merit. Special plaudits to Michael Winograd, who put the band together for this set and produced it.
Galeet Dardashti: “The Naming” (self-distributed)
I think this may be my favorite album of 2010. It’s a rip-roaring Sephardic-Mizrahi killer set of original material by Dardashti, and she shows off a range that I’m betting is in the vicinity of five octaves. More important, she isn’t just showing off, she uses that range brilliantly as part of a mesmerizingly rich tapestry of propulsive rhythms and swirling musical colors. The powerful feminist message of her songwriting is done ample justice by a superb band. As we used to say, “It’s got a good beat; you can dance to it.” I can’t say it any more explicitly: Go buy this record! Available from www.cdbaby.com.
The Freilachmakers Klezmer String Band: “Klezmer at the Confluence – Jewish Music from Sacramento” (self-distributed)
Sacramento is home to a lively bluegrass music scene, and the band draws on that genre for some of its inspiration. With no disrespect to Margot Leverett and the Klezmer Mountain Boys, the Freilachmakers have a firmer grasp on the blending of the two idioms, thanks in no small part to Andy Rubin’s deft banjo playing. That these guys have only made three CDs in 12 years is a shame. Given how long it has taken to get back into the studio, the new set is understandably generous, with 18 cuts totaling well over an hour. That allows them to essay a wide range of musical styles. They are at their best with the klezgrass synthesis, but their versions of some Sephardic romanceros are charming. The overall result is a warm and friendly recording that has a nicely homemade feel. Available from www.freilachmakers.com.
Noah Preminger “Before the Rain” (Palmetto)
A sturdy new recording from the young tenor saxphonist, backed by a stellar rhythm section — Frank Kimbrough on piano, John Herbert on bass and Matt Wilson on drums. (Wilson seems to be on every third jazz record released this year; does he ever sleep?) Preminger is one of those rare tenor players who seem to have eschewed the Rollins and Coltrane influences. His playing is light and spacey, with a lilt to his lines. At times his horn sounds more like an alto. But he makes up in melodic inventiveness for what he may cast aside in power. The giveaway is his smart rendition of Ornette Coleman’s “Toy Dance;” Preminger’s heart is in harmolodics.
“Sephardic Music Festival, Vol. 1” (Shemspeed)
Diwon and his Shemspeed Jewish hip-hop mob seem to be everywhere these days. They release new music almost faster than you can listen to it and the stable of talent accumulating there is impressive, headed by Y-Love and Diwon himself, with Kosha Dillz and Eprhyme coming on strong this year. I like the basic aesthetic and feel of what the label is doing, so rather than choose among them, I want to pull your coat to a nicely gauged assortment, drawn from their annual winter Sephardic Music Festival. Strong, if uncharacteristically melodious cut from Matisyahu, hard-rocking dance music from Electro Morocco, wailing Mizrahi blues from Galeet Dardashti, Sarah Aroeste and Basya Schechter, plus a generous helping of the usual Shemspeed beats and raps. A great, great party album.