You don’t need to be a genius to see that the music industry, like the other branches of the media, is driven almost entirely by desire for profit. Perhaps that is not an entirely bad thing, but with the continuing consolidation of media companies, the bottom line really means bottom, as in lowest common denominator.
Jewish music has a small niche audience and is thoroughly ghettoized, regardless of what kind of Jewish music it is. Even a comparatively popular act like The Klezmatics is found on a small specialty label. When Neil Sedaka, who certainly has a proven record as a hit maker, decides to record a Yiddish album, he does so for Sameach. That is not a reflection on the record label; my hat’s off to them for distributing the music they do. But it says something about the market.
This month’s column is filled with excellent music, almost all of it from bands who are producing and distributing their own CDs or from tiny independent labels struggling to survive. Where would Jewish music be without Sameach, Yiddishland, Golden Horn, Tzadik and all the others? You should support these endeavors, because this is nearly the only way that Jewish music will survive. It sure won’t get any help from the Fortune 500.
Neshama Carlebach: “Journey” (Sameach)
There was never much doubt that Neshama could carry on her father’s legacy. The real question was whether she could extend it and make it her own; Reb Shlomo cast a long shadow. This CD, her best to date, answers the question with a powerful affirmative. Most of the songs are by Reb Shlomo, but the interpretations are distinctive and original. Neshama is in fine voice, with a smokier, more expressive sound than ever. Darker and a bit more brooding than any of Shlomo’s records, a terrific recording.
The Catskill Klezmorim: “The Well-Tempered Klezmir” (Divine Noise)
Solid mainstream klezmer with a strong jazz flavor. Capably played and a lot of fun. Available from email@example.com.
Rating: YYY ½
Counterpoint: “When The Rabbi Danced: Songs of Jewish Life from the Shtetl to the Resistance” (Albany Records)
Classical-inflected performances of program of Yiddish chestnuts by Counterpoint, a vocal ensemble directed by Robert Cormier, who has been an integral part of the preservation of the Terezin legacy. Studied, precise, but a bit lifeless. Rating: YY½
Golem: “Homesick Songs” (Aeronaut)
From the opening speeded-up chords of “Odessa,” you have a pretty good idea that this is not your father’ s klezmer band. Unless, of course, your father was Sid Vicious. A wildly entertaining set that re-imagines traditional tunes in a kaleidoscope of styles, from brass band to café tango to three-chord thrash. Jazz Passenger stalwart Curtis Hasselbring brings the funk with his trombone and vocalists Annette Ezekiel and Aaron Diskin twist all night. And just when you thought nobody could do anything new with “Rumenia,” they do. Not for the kiddies, but a load of fun.
Ayelet Rose Gottlieb: “Internal External” (Genevieve)
This light-voiced Israeli jazz diva is strongly influenced by Jeanne Lee and Betty Carter in her loosey-goosey approach to melody. Fascinatingly sinuous version of Ornette Coleman’s “Peace” opens the set, there’s a Charles Mingus tune, “Portrait,” and “You’re Driving Me Crazy,” but the other five offerings are originals by Gottlieb, angular and abstract. Terrific support from trumpeter Avishai Cohen, guitarist Shahar Levavi, Matana Roberts on alto and a tight rhythm section.
Rating: YYY ½
Kapelye: “Neyer Derekh/New Directions” (self-distributed)
Kapelye, one of the earliest New Klez bands, has undergone some changes recently and is now a trio — Eric Berman on bass and tuba, Ken Maltz on clarinet and Pete Sokolow on keyboards and vocals — with guest drummers. As it was when Henry Sapoznik was at the helm, the band is an excellent purveyor of mainstream klezmer in the ’20s-’30s style, with an occasional excursion into swing. Excellent straight-ahead playing. Available from firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rebecca Kaplan and Peter Rushefsky: “On the Paths: Yiddish Songs with Tsimbl” (Yiddishland)
Rushefsky is carving out a nice niche for himself as a tsimblist, playing that old-world version of the hammered dulcimer quite deftly. The sheer strangeness of the sound to modern ears helps transform even the most familiar tune into something new and Kaplan’s haunting vocals help enormously. If the direction of New Klez is into the past, to the music of the “old country,” then consider Rushefsky one of the pathfinders. Available from www.yiddishlandrecords.com.
Rating: YYYY ½
Shtreiml: “Spicy Paprikash” (self-distributed)
When I reviewed this band’s first set I expressed apprehension about their future direction. Jason Rosenblatt’s harmonica playing, while capable, had too thin a sound to carry a klezmer group, and Josh Dolgin’s accordion seemed to echo rather than complement him. The new CD doesn’t entirely put my concerns to rest but the set is energetic and polished and definitely a step forward. Dolgin is playing with a fuller sound, there are keyboards and occasional brass, and Rosenblatt has really connected to the expressive possibilities of the diatonic harmonica. Available from www.shtreiml.com.
Yiddishe Cup: “Meshugeneh Mambo” (self-distributed)
Oh, mama, those strange men are here again. When last we heard Yiddishe Cup, they were playing wild and weird klezmer; now they’re playing — well let’s just say Mickey Katz would envy their madness. Maybe not their costumes, which evoke a combination of Carmen Miranda and the local Hadassah thrift shop, but their music definitely. The heavy-metal-doo-wop-James-Bond version of “My Yiddishe Mama” is worth the price of admission by itself. I can’t imagine what they are like on stage but I’m sure the American Psychiatric Association is watching closely. Available from www.Yiddishecup.com.
Rating: YYYY ½
Consumer Alert: Since she died earlier this year, a lot of people have become interested in Naomi Shemer, best known here for “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav.” Hatikvah Music is importing a mammoth two-CD, 50-song set, “Asif,” that spans Shemer’s career with original recordings by her and others dating from 1956 up to the late ’80s. For more information, go to www.hatikvahmusic.com or call (323) 655-7083.