News and Views on Jews and Music

Paul Wieder photo 2013

Paul Wieder is putting Jewish music on your playlist! Plus updates on Jewish music festivals, reviews of Jewish music websites and blogs, and insights from Jewish music producers and promoters. Let’s make Jewish music part of your well-balanced musical diet!

News and Views on Jews and Music

The (Jewish) Sounds of Simon— Part II: Going to Graceland

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In the first installment, we looked at the Jewish content of Simon’s work on his five albums with Art Garfunkel. Here, we will deal with next phase of his career— the six albums that took Simon from the breakup with his singing partner in 1970 to the universally acknowledged highlight that is his Graceland album in 1986. 

If he only had the hits from this part of his story, Simon would still be the man who wrote: “Mother and Child Reunion,” “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard,” “Kodachrome,” “Something So Right,” “American Tune,” “Loves Me Like a Rock,” “Still Crazy After All These Years,” “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” “Late in the Evening,” and “Slip Slidin’ Away.” (I would link to clips of these songs, but chances are you can hear them in your head just by reading their titles.)

Simon, in fact, recorded a solo album back in 1965 titled Songbook, but most of those songs ended up being worked into Simon and Garfunkel albums.

On his first post-Garfunkel album, titled simply Paul Simon, he tells a Boxer-like story, this time of a young man named Lincoln Duncan who encounters “a young girl in a parking lot, preaching to a crowd… reading from a Bible.”

That young preacher also sings “sacred songs,” one of which may have been a late 1800s hymn called “It Is Well With My Soul,” which begins: “When peace, like a river, attendeth my way…” Which, in turn, is a quote from Isaiah 66:12: “Behold, I will extend her peace like a river…” Simon’s song that uses that image, “Peace Like a River,” seems to refer to a peace march winding its way “through a city.” 

His follow-up album, There Goes Rhymin’ Simon, has cover art by the great Jewish graphic designer Milton Glaser, famous for his “I [Heart] NY” T-shirts. Whatever Jewish content may be found in the songs is strictly thematic. “Tenderness” is about softening criticism, “One Man’s Ceiling Is Another Man’s Floor” is about social consideration, and “Learn How to Fall” is about hoping for the best but preparing for the worst. “American Tune” is about America being a place of refuge and hope, an idea Jews can well appreciate: “We come in the age’s most uncertain hour/ And sing an American Tune.”

Simon’s third solo album won a Grammy and its title spawned a popular expression: Still Crazy After All These Years. The most Jewish track on this album is one of his most Jewish overall. Titled “Silent Eyes,” it is a profound, and profoundly sad, meditation on Jerusalem: “Silent eyes watching Jerusalem make her bed of stones… Jerusalem weeps alone. She is sorrow… she burns like a flame, and she calls my name.”

There is another reference, perhaps, to the Kotel in an earlier track, “My Little Town.” The song, his last duet with Garfunkel, opens: “In my little town/ I grew up believing/ God keeps His eye on us all/ And He used to lean upon me/ As I pledged allegiance to the Wall.”

Some Folks' Lives Roll Easy,” meanwhile, contains an actual prayer: “Here I am, Lord, knocking at Your gates/ I know, I ain’t got no business here/ But You said if I ever got so low I was busted/ You could be trusted.” 

Have a Good Time” also asks for blessing, although more cynically: “God bless the good we were given/ And God bless the U.S. of A./ And God bless our standard of livin’/ Let’s keep it that way.” 

It should also be noted that, while the music on “Gone at Last” is decidedly gospel, Simon’s duet partner was Jewish singer-songwriter Phoebe Snow.

Simon then took a break from the studio to make a movie, One-Trick Pony, but went back in to record the soundtrack. The movie asked the question: “What if Simon hadn’t become famous?” which it answered, “He’d be leading a bar band.” And in that band was Jewish bass virtuoso Tony Levin; Simon’s character in the movie was Jonah Levin. 

That may be the source for the character’s last name; what about the first? It’s about being consumed by his passion for his art. In the song “Jonah,” he explains: “They say Jonah was swallowed by a whale… I know Jonah, he was swallowed by a song.” The soundtrack also features the songs “That’s Why God Made the Movies” and “God Bless the Absentee

Simon’s pre-Graceland album, Hearts and Bones, may be the first place Simon refers to himself as a “Jew.” The title track introduces, in its opening lines, its story’s characters: “One and one-half wandering Jews.” The “one-half” most likely refers to his wife, actress Carrie Fisher, whose father was the Jewish crooner Eddie Fisher (Simon and Fisher were married less than a year). 

(And is there a more Jewish worry than the lyric: “Maybe I think too much”? Should he think about that… or not?!?) 

Which brings us to Graceland. The title track is one of Simon’s personal favorites of his own work. While even the geographic clues indicate the journey is to Elvis’ mansion, the song overall is clearly about a pilgrimage toward redemption.

The other major hit from the album, “You Can Call Me Al,” is about a man finding himself in unfamiliar situations. By the third verse, he is in a “foreign” land. At first, he is disconcerted and off-balance, “surrounded by the sounds,” and even “cattle in the marketplace.” Then, he sees “angels in the architecture.” While still “spinning in infinity,” he’s now happy to be experiencing this dizzying newness: “He says: ‘Amen and Hallelujah!’”

(In the next installment, we will continue to search for references to Jewish people, places, and phrases in Paul Simon’s work… from after Graceland to his 2016 release, Stranger to Stranger.)

The (Jewish) Sounds of Simon— Part I: The Garfunkel Years

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Paul Simon is still going strong at 74, and is even releasing a new album in June 2016, Stranger to Stranger. He is one of those about whom it is fairly said they “need no introduction,” so we will delve right in to the question at hand: Simon is Jewish, but how Jewish is his songwriting?

Even on the first official Simon and Garfunkel album Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M., Simon is already using imagery from the Psalms and Torah, speaking of God and his People as a “shepherd” and “his sheep,” and of “a long road to Canaan,” in the song “Bleeker Street,” named after a road in Greenwich Village. (It should be noted that the duo was providing music for a Christian radio show in England at the time, which explains the presence of three Christian/Gospel numbers on the album.)

In the protest song, “He Was My Brother,” Simon writes about a Freedom Rider who was killed for his activism: “They shot my brother dead/ Because he hated what was wrong.” While he changed the details, the song was inspired by the death of three young activists working to register voters in Mississippi; two of them were Jewish (the other was African-American).

While not overtly Jewish, the song that put the duo on the map, “The Sound of Silence” (powerfully covered by the band Disturbed this year), does a very Jewish thing— it decries idolatry: “The people bowed and prayed/ To the neon god they’d made.”                                                                                                                 
On their follow up album, Sounds of Silence, they present an electrified remix of that song. They also offer a rumination on the temporary nature of life, echoing some of the sentiments of Koheleth/Ecclesiastes, with the song “Leaves That Are Green”: “Hello, hello, hello, hello/ Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye, goodbye/ That’s all there is.”

Their third album, Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme, has the song “Flowers Never Bend with the Rainfall,” about confusion and denial: “I’m blinded by the light/ Of God and Truth and Right/ And I wander in the night/ Without direction.” 

So Springsteen was not the first to use the expression “blinded by the light”… and Billy Joel was not the first to use a quickly recited list of pop-culture references as lyrics. In “A Simple Desultory Philippic,” Simon rattles off a list of his contemporary newsmakers who have influenced him… whether we wanted them to or not. The list includes several Jewish figures: writers Norman Mailer and Ayn Rand; music producers Phil Spector, Lou Adler, and Albert Grossman; comedian Lenny Bruce; and fellow songwriter Bob Dylan. Bruce’s death is also mentioned in newscast that plays under the duo singing “Silent Night.” 

The soundtrack to The Graduate recycles much of their material up to then, but it is interesting to note how Jewish a movie it was, considering the director (Mike Nichols), the screenwriter (Buck Henry), and the star (Dustin Hoffman). Even David Grusin, the jazz composer who wrote the other music in the soundtrack, representing the older generation, was Jewish; Grusin would later arrange the horn part of Simon’s hit “Late in the Evening” for Simon’s own movie, One Trick Pony.

Bookends, the duo’s penultimate album, features the favorite “Old Friends,” about two elderly gentlemen “sharing a park bench.” The song is not especially Jewish, but its introduction— “Voice of Old People”— is a recording of actual elderly people, taken at (I could not make this up) The United Home for Aged Hebrews in California.

Then, in the song “Fakin’ It,” Simon refers to an elder of his own— his grandfather, who died before Simon was born. This man was a tailor, and in this song, Simon muses: “I own the tailor’s face and hands.”

Their final album, Bridge Over Troubled Water, won six Grammys, sold some 5 million copies, and is universally beloved. Its country-inflected track “Keep the Customer Satisfied” uses the image of a drifter treated as an outlaw as a metaphor for life as a travelling musician in an everyone’s-a-critic world: “I’ve been slandered!/ Libeled!/ I hear words I never heard in the Bible.”

(In the next installment, we will continue to search for references to Jewish people, places, and phrases in Paul Simon’s work… up to and including Graceland.)

What’s Jewish about...reggae?

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Summer seems to be the right time to talk about this upbeat, uplifting tropical music.

Reggae has two main sources for its inspiration -- life on the island of Jamaica, and the religion there, Rastafari. That word itself is Amharic, the language of Ethiopia, which is a Semitic tongue. The Hebrew equivalent would be Rosh-Tiferet, also meaning the "Leader (literally, "head") who is Revered." This is the title they give to King Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia.

Rastafari is based on Ethiopian Christianity, but the faith is steeped in the Five Books of Moses. They refer to God as "Jah," one of the Jewish names for God, as in "Hallelujah."

Reggae's best-known performer, Bob Marley, named an entire album for his song Exodus. Like Rastafari practitioners in general, he saw the goal of life as a rejection of the shallow materialism of Babylon, as in his song " Chant Down Babylon," and embracing of the high, pure aspirations of Zion, as in "Zion Train." Babylon, of course, is a famous Jewish place of exile, while Zion is our homeland.

Other Marley songs refer to such Jewish terms as Almighty and Hallelujah, Adam and Eve, Noah, Solomon, and Samson. He also quotes Psalm 121 and Proverbs, and refers to the book of prophets. On his last album, he has a song called "Stiff-Necked Fools," a reference to God's chiding of the Jews as a "stiff-necked people" (Shmot/Exodus 32:9).

Bunny Wailer is one of the Wailers-- both Marley's backing band and artists in their own right. Jewish references in Bunny's songs run from the beginning of the Torah-- The Creation-- to right near the end-- The Book of Jeremiah.

Marley's other followers also refer many times to the Jewish story. Desmond Dekker compares the plight of the poor to that of the Israelites in Egyptian slavery. He also has a song titled "Honor Your Mother and Father, with lyrics taken from the Ten Commandments.

Dennis Brown, in one song,"Africa," refers to both the "lion of Judah" and the "roots of David." In others, he refers to God as Creator, and quotes the 23rd Psalm. He also performs a song based on "By the Waters of Babylon," in this case called " Rivers of Babylon."

Yet another reggae band, The Congos, makes even more Torah references. They especially like the Exodus story, mentioning Moses, Passover, and the Ark of the Covenant. But they cover everyone from Joseph to Daniel, and groups from the Children of Israel to the residents of Sodom and Gomorra.

One Brooklyn-based reggae singer-songwriter goes so far as to call himself Dr. Israel and wear and Magen David when performing. Every song on his debut album is a Torah reference: Deborah, Enoch, Job, Adam and Eve, Solomon and Sheba, David and Goliath, and Psalm 87. His most recent album has a song, " Tetze" with a Hebrew title and lyrics.

Still other reggae performers refer to Torah heroes-- Jacob, Aaron, even Shadrach, Mishach, and Abednego. The full lyrics to these songs, and others with Torah sources, can be found here.

The core reggae record studio, Island Records, was founded in Jamaica in 1959 by Christopher Percy Gordon Blackwell, who went by just "Chris." At 22, Blackwell became one off the first to record ska music, of which reggae is an offshoot. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, of which he is an inductee, calls Chris Blackwell "the single person most responsible for turning the world on to reggae music." Blackwell was Jewish--in fact, his mother was Sephardic.

Bob Marley recorded for Island, as did his backing group The Wailers, and the compilation titled Island Reggae Greats shows who else did, too: Jimmy Cliff, Lee "Scratch" Perry, Steel Pulse, Burning Spear, Toots and the Maytals and Sly and Robbie, for starters.

Meanwhile, many Jewish performers have embraced reggae and worked Jewish themes into it. Most famous, of course, is Matisyahu. He appears with Dr. Israel and others in the documentary Awake Zion about the similarities of Jewish and Rasta culture. But he is hardly the first or only Jewish musician to delve into reggae.

Alan Eder has two albums with reggae versions of Jewish holiday songs: Reggae Passover and Reggae Chanukah. Alan Eder has a Masters in African Music Performance and won a Fulbright to study this music in Nigeria. He later attended a seder and was so struck by its similar themes of redemption and freedom he began to merge the cultures through music.

Another pioneer in this field is David "Solid" Gould. His Adonai and I album so impressed John Zorn, Gould began to record for Zorn's Tzadik label. Just don't confuse that with Zadik, a newer Jewish reggae outfit.

King Django merges not just Jewish themes and images but Jewish music-- namely, klezmer--and reggae on the album Roots and Culture. It's probably the only place to hear "Night Boat to Cairo" by the ska band Madness… in Yiddish. That's not online, but his swingin' Lomir Ale Zingen is. Another band to mix these two sounds even named their act KlezSka; the lead keyboardist, Glenn Tamir, goes by the stage name Skavanagila.

The most outlandish character to marry these two worlds is Ari Ben Moses. He began performing as Ari Lehman… and as an actor. In fact, he played the killer Jason Voorhees in the first Friday the 13th movie. He then went into music, becoming the reggae keyboardist Ari Ben Moses, touring the US, Europe and West Africa, and recording with Tuff Gong Records, another key reggae studio. He married, settled in Chicago, and formed the Ari Ben Moses Band, which had several Jewish numbers. His current band plays horror-fan conventions-- it's called First Jason.

But Ron Wiseman has one of the longest careers in this subgenre. He has a dozen albums with titles like State of Judea, Israel Experience, and Kedusha, and he has recorded with poet Allen Ginsberg.

Reggae has always been popular in sunny Israel, and the influx of Ethiopian musicians has made it even more so. One Israeli reggae act-- that perform in Hebrew, Amharic, and English-- are

Zvuloon Dub System. Others are the non-Ethiopians Rasta Power, Rasdan, and Ketem Paz, whose lead singer is a Chasid. And then there is Alula Tzadik, who merges the musics of his birthplace (Ethiopia), his heritage (Jewish), and his inspiration (Marley) to make a unique sound. His story is as powerful as his message.

Nor is Jewish reggae strictly a man's game. Meet Queen Makedah from tropical, um, Kansas City. Born in the 1970s, she had a recording contract by 16, discovered Bob Marley, visited Israel, and has since recorded several albums, including one called Peace Process.

Reggae's themes are of suffering, but also of redemption from that anguish through reliance on oneself, one's community, the examples set by Biblical ancestors, and God. Sounds… familiar.

Israel Solidarity Day also a music fe(a)st

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Four great acts are performing this year for JUF's Israel Solidarity Day at Ravinia on May 3.

First up, "fer der kinder" as we say, is Rick Recht. He quickly established himself as the brightest star of his generation of American Jewish musicians with his stunning 1999 debut, Tov.

Since, he has dropped several outstanding albums… founded Jewish Rock Radio, which streams today's best Jewish popular music online… and become a driving force behind Songleader Boot Camp, a crash course for Jewish musicians. Lately, he has been doing a ton of great kids' music, some of which has been distributed though the PJ Library. And it is in this capacity- helping the 5-and-under set burn off breakfast so they can sit still through lunch- that this tireless singer-songwriter-songleader comes to Israel Solidarity Day. He goes on at 11:00.

Here is my interview with Rick.

Then comes the 'adorkable' a cappela ensemble The Maccabeats. They took over YouTube a few years back with their "Candlelight" video (a parody of the dance hit "Dynamite") but, unlike many viral-video champs, kept the flame alive. While many of their silly rewrites revolve around Jewish holidays- like their latest, a multi-genre-spanning take on "Dayenu"- many other numbers are tender and moving… like "Home," filmed in Israel. They go on at noon.

Here is my interview with one of the Maccabeats.

At 2:30, the Jamman Drum Circle takes the stage. They hand out, well, hand drums to dozens of participants and lead them in ecstatic renditions of traditional Jewish and Israeli favorites.

As if all of this were not enough, the headliners are Israeli superstars Hadag Nachash. Their name, which translates to "the fish snake," is actually a spoonerized pun (made by switching the initial sounds of a pair of words- "take a shower" spoonerizes to "shake a tower") on the Israeli term for "new driver." Fittingly, one of their biggest hits, from their platinum 2004 album, is a series of rapped bumper sticker slogans. While nominally a hip-hop act, they rap over funk beats provided by a full band. Their six albums plea for peace and acceptance. They are also noted for collaborating with other major Jewish musicians, like Matisyahu. Their 2006 release was named Album of the Year at the Israeli Music Awards; its song "Hine Ani Ba" landed on the soundtrack of Adam Sandler's movie about a Mossad agent, You Don't Mess with the Zohan. Most recently, their song "Lo Maspik" was used in the video game The Sims 3: Late Night.

…And here is my review of Hadag Nachash's 2005 House of Blues concert, along with some quotes from the band's members.

See you at Israel Solidarity Day on May 3. I'll be the one introducing my four-year-old to Israeli hip-hop.

Jewish music this spring

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We've already had Jewish music and acting legend Theodore Bikel here in Chicago back in February, and the spring of 2015 brings even more great Jewish music and musicians:

Hazzan Alberto Mizrahi will be honored for his 25 years of service to Anshe Emet Synagogue on Sunday, March 8. The evening- titled "Opa! L'Chaim!" in reference to the cantor's Greek and Jewish heritage- will be held at the Ravenswood Event Center.

Andy Statman is coming to City Winery on March 16. This multitalented performer is a premier klezmer clarinetist and a premier bluegrass mandolin player. I asked him about that dichotomy when I interviewed him. As percussionist Larry Eagle explained, "Andy will be playing his clarinet and the Jewish spaces in our music will be touched upon- it won't be just bluegrass-flavored music."

Mama Doni, the best Jewish children's musician out there right now, is transitioning to adult music with her Nefesh Mountain bluegrass album. She is performing at a PJ Library concert called "Passover" Palooza on March 22 at the Highland Park Community House. (Hear my interview with her here.)

Israeli clarinet and sax virtuoso Anat Cohen brings her jazzy quartet to City Winery on April 10. She is has mastered the major American standards, but also many songs from around the world.  

Neil Diamond, still truckin' at 74, is coming back to the United Center on April 14.

Also, there is an electronic musician coming on April 17 to the Concord Music Hall; no definitive evidence that he's Jewish except for his stage name, Shlohmo.

Baladino is a quintet from Israel. "Baladi" means "from the land" in Arabic and "Ladino" is the language of the Sephardi Jews. Their music likewise combines these elements. They will be coming through Chicago, performing on April 17 at Insitituto Cervantes, on April 20 at Mayne Stage, and for the Israeli Consulate on April 27. (Also, they will be a quartet while in the States.)

On May 6, the Mizrahi anniversary celebration continues with the Dr. Arnold H. Kaplan Concert 2015 at the synagogue, with "Alberto Mizrahi and Friends: A Global Melange of Music." Special guests will include several visiting cantors, plus Grammy winner Howard Levy on piano and harmonica.

Tina Karol, born Tatyana Grigoryevna Liberman, represented Ukraine in the Eurovision music contest. She brings her multi-lingual, multi-cultural show and her Katy Perry-like pipes to Evanston Auditorium on May 9.

Looking ahead to summer… Idina Menzel will sing that song from Frozen and probably a song or two from Wicked at the Pritzker Pavillion, but not until August 16. Still, tickets will go quickly, so I thought I'd go ahead and (deep breath) let you know… let you knooooow…

What’s Jewish about… country music?

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Kinky Friedman is easily the most openly Jewish of country stars; he calls his backing band The Texas Jewboys, for one thing. And he has songs like "Ride 'Em, Jewboy" (that's Willie Nelson singing it) and his signature "They Ain't Makin' Jews like Jesus Anymore." But even if the discussion about Jews in country music starts with Kinky Friedman, it doesn't end there. Or with Borat, either.

In the world of mainstream country, there is one Jewish singer who stands head and shoulders above the rest. Literally- he's 6-foot-7. His name is Roy Benson, and he's the leader of the massive band called Asleep at the Wheel. They play Western swing, which takes country songs and adds a big-band swing, or they also run it the other way, taking classic swing or pop tunes and country-fying them.

Another country-like genre is bluegrass. So much Jewish music is being made in this mode that there is a sub-genre called- you guessed it- "Jewgrass." Its pioneers are no less than mandolin virtuosi David Grisman and Andy Statman. So far they have two albums out in their Songs of Our Fathers series, in which they give the bluegrass treatment to Jewish classics.

Statman is also famous as a klezmer clarinetist, so he is likely a fan of the Klezmer Mountain Boys (a pun on the band Yonder Mountain), founded by Klezmatics clarinetist Margo Leverett. Rabbi Bruce Adler also performs Jewish bluegrass, noting that he's "been a mountain man ever since the Israelites stood at Mount Sinai."

On a local note, Noam Pikelny is a banjo player who went to the Ida Crown Jewish Academy, studied country music, ate some lox, and ended up in a band called Leftover Salmon. He was also in Punch Brothers, and was recently nominated for a Grammy for his bluegrass banjo work.

And then there is Lucky Break, whose website describes them as "a band of veteran bluegrass singers and instrumentalists who combine the stark beauty of Appalachian music with Shabbat Z'mirot." But if you prefer a more Texas-style approach to your country-music Friday night service, you can find that at a congregation near Austin, because Shabbat at Shoal Creek is exactly that.

There are some Jewish performers who like to explore country among other sounds, like children's singer Mama Doni and the Albuquerque-based Rabbi Joe Black. But Texas-dwelling Robbi Sherwin has several albums of Jewish music, most of which are country-inflected.

The expression "Jewish songwriter" is pretty much a cliché, and that stands true even in Nashville. Daniel Antopolsky's story is so interesting they are making a documentary about it.

Arnold Rosenthal bills himself as "The world's first Jewish country singer," although as we have seen some might take issue with that. And Billy Kirsch has had his songs performed by Wynonna Judd, Kenny Rogers, and Alabama.

Jewish rock musicians who have dipped their toe in the Nashville River include Bob Dylan, with his classic albums John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline. More recently, Neil Diamond visited Nashville to record Tennessee Moon, which included a country-fried remake of his standby "Kentucky Woman." And Simon and Garfunkel adopted a country sound for the track "Keep the Customer Satisfied," on their classic Bridge Over Troubled Water album.

Even Jewish actresses perform country music. Barbi Benton (born Barbara Klein) was a Hee-Haw regular. And Mare Winningham (born Mary) revealed her country pipes in the movie Georgia; she has since converted to Judaism and recorded the Jewish country album Refuge Rock Sublime

But you don't have to be Jewish to perform Jewish country music. Charlie Daniels, of "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" fame, is a big Israel booster, and has performed HaTikva in concert. In Israel, where they know a thing or two about violin playing.

For a more comprehensive look at the Jewish contribution to country music, here is a longer piece clocking in at (an appropriate) 18 pages.

Jews love country music- especially bluegrass- so much, some Jewish filmmakers even directed a whole movie about it, so we'll close with Jewish actor Time Blake Nelson singing a song from that soundtrack.  Turns out, the answer to the question "O Brother, where art thou?" is "In a country-music video."

8 Lights, 8 Sounds: It’s the Chanukah Wrap-Up!

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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!


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