It's Chanukah, so it's time to party like it's 1999, which is the first year I wrote a Chanukah Wrap-Up. Much of my articles on Jewish music, including these reviews, have since migrated online, but the idea is the same- these are the best Jewish CDs produced this year to give as Chanukah gifts:
Allan Sherman: There is Nothing Like a Lox
A musical companion to the recent biography Overweight Sensation: The Life and Comedy of Allan Sherman. The CD recovers, as its subtitle indicates, "the lost song parodies" by the guy who came between Mickey Katz and Tom Lehrer on the one hand and Weird Al Yankovic and Andy Samberg on the other. The selections largely mock Broadway standards, from South Pacific (the title track and "Younger than Springsteen"), Music Man ("Seventy-Six Sol Cohens"), and Finian's Rainbow ("How Are Things with Uncle Morris?"). If you have all of Sherman's My Son albums and even Live!!! (Hoping You Are the Same), your collection also needs this.
Pharaoh's Daughter: Dumiyah
(The title is Hebrew for "silence.") One of the best Jewish music acts of all time returns (finally!) with another scintillating collection. This is only their sixth album since their 1999 debut-their most recent being 2007's Haran. Musically, it harkens back to the album that put them on the map, Out of the Reeds, with its grounding in traditional Sephardi and Mizrachi melodies and Jewish scripture and poetry but also modern electronic sensibilities; their "Maoz Tzur" and "Hanerot" wink and flicker like Chanukah candles. The instrument selection tells the story- shofars and santurs (Persian dulcimers) harmonize with synthesizers and electric guitars. Basya Schechter, the ensemble's driving force and insinuating voice, seems incapable of writing or singing a wrong note. This is love at first listen.
Maya Johanna Menachem and Shay Tochner: Ain't Going Nowhere
Nine of 14 tracks are by Bob Dylan, the rest by Leonard Cohen. Menachem, who performed at the Jewish Arts Festival this past summer, also has a CD of Irish tunes and another to some of the other 1960s folksingers. This is unexpected, since she bills herself as an Israeli artist. Or maybe we should stop worrying about borders and simply enjoy this latter-day Judy Collins and the delicate guitar accompaniment of Shay Tochner, beautifully interpreting some of the best songs by the some of the best songwriters. (Can we request a Paul Simon tribute next?)
The Afro-Semitic Experience: Jazz Souls on Fire
A Jewish bassist and an African-American pianist walk into a bar… On their previous outings, the duo and their ensemble have explored civil rights history, the Exodus ideal, and the power of memory, and how these have infused both the Jewish and black experiences. Here, they simply (and complexly!) jam to their favorite composers: Pharaoh Saunders, Mahalia Jackson, Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and others, interspersed with klezmer melodies, Jewish prayers, and gospel spirituals. The sound is joyous, even raucous, just-plain-big… and altogether- in all senses of the word- righteous.
Joanie Leeds and the Nightlights: Good Egg
Oh, yeah, you might want to get a kid a Chanukah gift, too. Well, why should kids have to suffer with mediocre music when they can listen to great stuff like this, which exposes kids to rock, reggae, swing, and other fun sounds. Leeds really gets the world of kids, with songs like "Food Fight," "Dino on the Upper West Side," and even "Germs." "Confusing Costume" is about having role models who are not cartoon princesses, and so is "With My Dad." And "Kid's Place" dreams up a paradise with low shelves and parents who don't spell words to keep kids in the dark. While it's not technically a Jewish album (one song even mentions-gasp!- Santa) Leeds has been a regular at Jewish events like the recent PJ Library anniversary. The title track is rife with "egg" puns like "egg-static" and "egg-cellent," but they forgot the best one to describe their album: "eggs-ilarating"!
Paul Shapiro: Shofarot Verses
Of course the shofar is the most Jewish horn, but second place goes either to the trumpet as played by Frank London or the sax in the hands of John Zorn and Paul Shapiro. This is Shapiro's fourth CD for Tzadik (Zorn's label). "Hashivenu," the softly soulful solo that opens the CD, gives way to the Broadway-via-Second-Avenue "Get Me to the Shul on Time" and the Dick-Dale-at-the-Deli "Surfin' Salami." Then "Ashamnu" breaks down that Yom Kippur prayer with an actual shofar wailing in the background. The rest of the album oscillates between those two poles- the ridiculously sublime and the sublimely ridiculous. Oh, and that's Marc Ribot's guitar slashing through everything.
Linda Hirschhorn: Amazed
Hirschhorn founded the all-women's chorus called Vocolot. Her new CD, however, is a solo effort titled Amazed. In fact, she has recorded as many solo albums as ensemble ones. Here, she explores the theme of awe; the songs have words like "love," "dreaming," "mercy" and "spirit" in the titles, reflecting her lifelong interest in exploring spirituality through music. The arrangements range from doo-wop to folk, soul, world, and Carly Simon-like pop. They are nearly all acoustic, with the notable exception of the blues number "Some Love." Hirschhorn's voice is lovely, but is also deployed with great control and expressiveness. The album overall is the work of a skillful, experienced pro who knows exactly what she wants to say and how. She is strong enough to open up and, as she puts it, "stay amazed."
The Sy Kushner Jewish Music Ensemble: Klez, Kush & Son
They're still making new klezmer music! Sy Kushner's first performance came the same year as his bar mitzvah, in 1953. He's still playing the accordion, only now his son Aaron is playing the sax at his side. How do you keep your sound fresh after decades? Well, you combine it with other things like marches, waltzes, and Middle-Eastern drums to make songs like "Merengklez" (merengue + klezmer), "Horalgar" (hora + bulgar). For another, you find inspiration in new life experiences. And then you can just experiment; "Decaklez" is written in the 10/8 time signature and changes keys twice. Even with all of these forward-leaning elements, the music remains stately and affecting - especially the elegant "Stratford Waltz," which belongs in a movie's falling-in-love scene.
Even if you don't have time to decorate for Chanukah, between peeling potatoes and wrapping gifts, putting on some great Jewish music turns and ordinary get-together into a Festival of De-Lights. (Sorry, that catchy Joannie Leeds CD has me stuck in pun mode…) Chag Chanukah Same'ach!