At the risk of sounding like Walter Cronkite, what kind of a year has it been in Jewish music? You wouldn’t know it from this annual compilation of five-star records — there are only eight this year, the fewest in the decade I’ve been doing this — but it’s been a very good year.
Longtime stalwarts like Joel Rubin and Budowitz released new records, another wave of Israeli jazz musicians is getting lots of work, and Jewish musicians are bending that hyphen that separates genres into a pretzel. Finally, if it was a year in which there were only eight five-star albums, it was also a year in which there were a lot of 4 1⁄2-star efforts, and that is good news. As Cronkite would say, “That’s the way it was in 2007.” Have a good 2008!
Balkan Beat Box: “Nu-Med” (JDub)
Say what you will about post-modernism in other areas of endeavor, but in music it has been a delicious wake-up call, a practical example of the (admittedly few) benefits of globalization. And Balkan Beat Box, with their second album, are the poster boys for it. This set is a glorious mash-up of bhangra, Bedouin and Balkan brass, swirling reeds and skirling turntable scratches. In short, it’s world hip-hop with a strong Middle-Eastern flavor, danceable in the extreme and endlessly inventive. I like to think that most of the albums to which I give the rare five-star accolade are not only entertaining; “Nu-Med” is entertaining to the max.
A decade or so ago the klezmer revival pendulum began to swing from the New World to the Old Country, and an increasing number of bands began to explore music driven by violin and tsimbl rather than brass and reeds. Budowitz was one of the spearheads of that new approach. This all-instrumental double-CD live set, recorded in Switzerland in late November 2005, is a superbly played introduction to that sound for those who are not familiar with it yet. The bulk of the 33 selections here are traditional tunes arranged by band members, with seven originals that blend in quite nicely. If you didn’t look at the track listings, you wouldn’t know which songs were written in the 21st century and which were handed down through generations. Budowitz draws its repertoire from across the map of Jewish Eastern and Central Europe, and there isn’t a stale tune in the bunch. This is a set that was worth a seven-year wait.
Anat Cohen and the Anzic Orchestra: “Noir” (Anzic)
Released simultaneously with “Poetica,” this set features Cohen mainly on saxophone, dipping into a repertoire that deftly combines standards with her beloved Brazilian jazz; how about a medley of “Samba de Orfeu” and “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue?” The big band behind her features some very familiar NYC names — Ted Nash, Anat’s brother Avishai, Ali Jackson, Jr. and Erik Friedlander among them — and the charts by Oded Lev-Ari remind me of the delicious blend of funk and elegance that distinguishes Gil Evans or Bob Brookmeyer. Although it is her session, Cohen is very generous with solo time and there are telling contributions from many of the players. But the centerpiece here is Cohen, stomping hard on tenor (“No Moon at All” and a combustible “Cry Me a River”), making creative use of the clarinet’s lower register (“La Comparsa”), and generally swinging hard throughout. Don’t look now, folks, but this is the calling card of a major new jazz voice.
Peter Himmelman: “The Pigeons Couldn’t Sleep” (Himmasongs)
Himmelman is back with another set filled with brawny rockers, ranging from the funkified 12-bar blues of the title tune to the lacerating guitar-driven lurch of “A Dog Can Drink Stagnant Water.” As usual, his lyrics are somewhat cryptic, but unmistakably carry a heavy charge of spiritual self-evaluation. Certainly there can’t be a more appropriate line for the Days of Awe than “There comes a time to mend your way, and that time is now.” Most of the songs here are terse and punchy, with sudden, unexpected flashes of a lyricism that Himmelman keeps concealed most of the time. You have to love a guy who can use a word like “exhalations” in a lyric, then follow it with a coruscating guitar solo. The CD comes with a DVD of an hour-long documentary about Himmelman, “Rock God,” which displays his rather unexpected humor, frequently self-deprecating and always charming.
The Joel Rubin Ensemble: “Midnight Prayer” (Traditional Crossroads)
Like the Budowitz set, this is Old World-style klezmer, albeit with Rubin’s clarinet providing the main voice and the presence of trumpeter Ferenc Kovacs adding a little more heft. The set was recorded in four days at the Operetta House in Budapest and several of the band members are Hungarian, but the tunes are drawn from the historical treasure trove of Soviet-era field work by Moshe Beregovski and his predecessors in the An-Ski Expeditions. The set has a delightfully jaunty feel to its klezmer numbers starting with the up-tempo section of the opening track, “Khabno,” while the other musical source of the recording, Hasidic nigunim, provides a soul-wrenching counterpoint. Rubin is in fine form throughout, but particularly electrifying on the nigunim and, most of all, on the title tune, where he weeps with the best of them. I particularly like Claudio Jacomucci’s lithe accordion lines and interplay between cimbalom master Kalman Balogh and the violinists, Sandor Budai and David Chernyavsky. I realize that Rubin is busier than ever with his teaching, writing and producing duties, but I hope we don’t have to wait ten years for another recording of his own masterful playing.
Metropolitan Klezmer: “Traveling Show” (Rhythm Media)
There used to be two complaints about live rock albums. Either the band just played their greatest hits exactly as they had on record — who needs a live recording that’s nothing but a reprise of the studio, only with the mistakes intact? Or they indulged their arty sides with long, dull solos. Old-line klezmer wasn’t as much of an improviser’s art as, say, jazz, but contemporary New Klez is much more so. And that means that a live set like this new one from the Metros is welcome. The band swings hard, everyone has ample solo room and plenty to say. There’s even a track from Eve Sicular’s other band, Isle of Klezbos. In short, this is what a live set should be — great fun. Available from www.metropolitanklezmer.com.
Pharaoh’s Daughter: “Haran” (Oy!hoo)
It is one of the commonplaces of criticism that every filmmaker/novelist/composer spends her life writing/directing/composing the same piece over and over. Or, if you prefer, a series of chapters in a single, evolving work. One could accuse Basya Schechter and Pharaoh’s Daughter of remaking the same CD several times, but that would mean you had missed the subtle evolution that has been going on from one recording to the next as Schechter emerges as one of the most talented Jewish music makers of her generation. The latest album, “Haran,” continues the group’s exploration of Middle-Eastern modes and liturgical texts with a series of sinuous, winding tunes that are frequently hypnotic and invariably compelling. The new set foregrounds the keyboards more than its predecessors, and the drumming takes on an insistent backbeat that gives some of the up-tempo numbers an odd R&B feel. But the end result is another progression along the same road that Schechter and Co. have been exploring so fruitfully for the past several years. To put it another way, what is wrong with repeating yourself if you say it right every time?
The Polina Shepherd Vocal Experience, (featuring Quartet Ashkenazim): “Baym Taykh” Oriente)
I will admit that my Jewish music listening habits are hardly ordinary. I get paid to listen to a lot more new Yiddish music than you. So you can take my word if I tell you that this dazzling new recording is a distinct change of pace from what I usually hear. The songs are all originals, composed by Polina Shepherd, and sung by Shepherd and a quartet that includes her and husband Merlin Shepherd (who also contributes memorably on reeds and guitar), Yana Ovrutskaya and Evgenya Slavina. This is elegant chamber music that dances nimbly from postmodern a cappella to jazz to art song without missing a beat. A beautiful, frequently moving CD. You can’t dance to it, but you can listen for hours without losing interest. Available from Hatikvah Music (www.hatikvahmusic.com, ( 655-7083).