This year produced 16 five-star recordings, and you can’t go wrong with any of them. However, because of space limitations, I am forced to choose a 10-best list. That doesn’t mean the rest are anything less than wonderful, and I have listed them all here.
“Abayudaya: Music from the Jewish People of Uganda” (Smithsonian Folkways)
In more than five years of writing this column, I have reviewed Jewish reggae, Jewish salsa, Jewish punk and who knows what else. This is the first (and I suspect the only) time I have ever encountered Jewish Afro-pop. Unless we are talking about the ill-fated attempt to reroute Zionist aspirations to the then English colony there, Jews and Uganda don’t turn up in the same sentence too often. But there is a tribe, called the Abayudaya, who have openly embraced a Jewish identity for a century, and this recording of their musical traditions is the nicest surprise I can imagine, a lively, melodic collection of settings of Jewish texts unlike any other. Ranging from hand-drum-driven “Hiwumbe Awumba” through a sweetly harmonized children’s choir version of “Mi Khamokha,” this CD is pure joy from start to finish. If you like King Sunny Ade, you’ll definitely get this. Available from Hatikvah Music (www.hatikvahmusic.com or (323) 655-7083.
Francoise Atlan and L’Orchestre Arabo-Andalou de Fes: “Andalussyat” (Buna Musique).
A superb collection of Ladino and Arab-Andalusian classics. If you listen to this music much you will probably have recordings of many of the tunes on this set, but I doubt it you will have better renditions than Atlan’s. Classically trained and originally a specialist in avante-gardists like Ligeti and Nono, she turned to her own Jewish-Berber roots and the result is one of the most beautiful recordings of the year. Available from Hatikvah Music (www.hatikvahmusic.com or (323) 655-7083.
David Chevan and the Afro-Semitic Experience: “Days of Awe” (Reckless DC Music).
David Chevan began his explorations of Jewish music in a series of superb duet recordings with pianist Warren Byrd. The duo expanded to a full band, the Afro-Semitic Experience. Now, with guest Frank London on trumpet and flugelhorn, Chevan and the Experience have ventured into their most difficult project yet, jazz improvisations based on Yossele Rosenblatt’s settings for Yamim Noraim. As might be expected, this is a darker, more melancholy record than their previous CD, which fizzed with the effervescent wit of another bassist-leader, Charles Mingus. Intriguingly, the star of this set is neither Chevan, Byrd or London but, to my ears, lap steel guitarist Stacy Phillips. Phillips makes great use of the vocalistic qualities of his instrument and also plays some mean fiddle. The band still swings hard, but with a somber edge. A great recording.
The Fig Tree (The Boite). Available from www.boite.asn.au.
Here’s what I love about the Internet. Arnold Zable wrote a book, “The Fig Tree,” about the immigrant experience in Australia, a society as multiculti as our own. Then he assembled a CD of musicians who reflect that experience. And because I’m on a Jewish music e-mail list, I found out about the recording and can tell you to go buy it, because it is a lovely and evocative collection of Jewish, Greek and Italian music that illuminates a place not unlike New York. The second selection is an excerpt from Theodorakis’s monumental “Mathausen Cantata,” sung by Maria Farandouri. You would expect everything that follows to be an anti-climax, but Klezmania, Klemzeritis, Kavisha Mazzella and others are more than up to the challenge. A wonderfully smart and moving CD.
The Golden Dove: “Masterpieces from the Jewish Folk Music Society” (4Tay).
Chamber music for piano and violin, featuring Zina Schiff and Cameron Grant, respectively, with Cherina Carmel filling in at the keyboard on two selections. The Jewish Folk Music Society was founded in St. Petersburg in 1908 at a time when the then-Russian capital was also a center of musical genius. Encouraged by Rimsky-Korsakov, who died before the organization was officially inaugurated, the Society drew from many of his students and was responsible for some truly magnificent music, including the 19 brief pieces recorded here. Schiff is a wonderfully expressive player, and Grant (and Carmel) offer sympathetic and subtle accompaniment. A very beautiful recording.
Historic Music of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in the City of New York (Shearith Israel League)
A three-CD set, handsomely packaged, using recordings made in 1956, 1959 and 1960 to recapture the spirit of music written for and performed in the oldest synagogue in New York, one of the first on North American soil. Abraham Lopes Cardozo and the choir on display here are deeply stirring and the three CDs, which range from Shabbat music on the first and third sets and High Holy Day and festival music on the second and third, are a powerful and inspirational collection as well as an excellent introduction to one branch of American Sephardic liturgical music. Available from Shearith Israel League, 8 W. 70th St., (212) 873-0300.
Richard Locker: “Jewish Cello Masterpieces” (Leggiero).
This CD arrived the same day as the Lasker-Wallfisch and shortly after I first heard Maya Beiser’s “Kinship,” which was released last year. Why the sudden spate of great Jewish cello recordings? Who knows. But this is powerful, dark and brooding music, superbly played by Locker. He draws from some obvious sources — Ernst Bloch, Ravel, Bruch — but also plays music by Zavel Zilberts, David Meyerowitz and Jacob Wasilovsky to great effect.
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, www.hatikvahmusic.com or (323) 655-7083.
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.
Hadass Pal-Yarden: “Yahudice” (Kalan)
Pal-Yarden is an Israeli singer and ethnomusicologist who has been exploring Ladino song for several years. This collection of urban songs from Ottoman Jewry, mostly secular. 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, www.hatikvahmusic.com or (323) 655-7083.
And don’t forget these excellent recordings.
Conservatoire de Musique de Geneve: “Les Psaumes” (Les Amis de Musique Juive). Available from www.club-association.ch/amj.
Samy Elmaghribi: “Haggadah de Pessah” (Azoulay Bros.) available from www.hatikvahmusic.com or (323) 655-7083.
Anita Lasker-Wallfisch: “Testament” (Our World).
New Orleans Klezmer All-Stars: “Borvis” (Stretchy). Available from www.klezmers.com.
Ben Perowsky: “Camp Songs” (Tzadik).
Beyle Schaechter-Gottesman: “Af di Gasn fun der Shtot” (Yiddishland). Available from www.yiddishlandrecords.com.