The Chanukah Wrap Up—2016 Edition!

[Note to readers: I am still planning on doing Part III of my “What’s Jewish about Paul Simon’s Music” series, covering Rhythm of the Saints to Stranger to Stranger. But Chanukah is coming soon…]

For those die-hards still clinging to the CD format, great music is still being released that way. (Heck, vinyl LPs have managed to hang around and even thrive, so who knows?). Here are a menorah’s worth (that’s 8+1) of Jewish CDs that came out recently. They range from the comfortably familiar to the challengingly fresh, but all are Jewish at their core:

Steven Blaine: I Confess
The first track on the album is “Nashville,” and that’s where this folksy, rootsy set was recorded, in the same studio where Johnny Cash laid down some tracks. Others on this album include ones perfect for Yom Kippur, like “Pray to the Lord” and “I Confess,” which starts: “I believe in being good/ I only I wish I always could.” Blaine is 60, but he still sings like a college student with something to prove. Oh, and I should probably mention that Blaine is a rabbi. Who plays the guitar and covers Roy Orbison songs.

David Broza and the Andalusian Orchestra Ashkelon: Andalusian Love Song
“Andalusia” is a region of Spain and “Ashkelon” is a city in Israel, which should clue you in to the mélange of music mixed here. David Broza, who is both thoroughly Israeli (he was born there) and fluent in Spanish (he went to school there), makes for a perfect guide for this journey. After some 70 live performances together, the bard and the band decided to record their exultant collaboration, which blends Broza’s compositions and singing with traditional Mediterranean songs and sounds. The result is daring, dizzying, and dazzling. 

Cantor Rita Glassman: A World of Peace
Cantor Glassman sees some pop songs as prayers, like Carly Simon’s “Let the River Run,” The Beatles’ “Let It Be,” and the Andrea Bocelli/Celine Dion duet “The Prayer” (OK, that one was a ‘gimme’). Here, she sets those— alongside Debbie Friedman’s and her own arrangements of lyrics from the Torah and Siddur— to acoustic arrangements… and her warm, engaging, Joan Baez-like voice.

Joanie Leeds and the Nightlights: Meshugana
As you might guess by the band’s name, this is one for the kids… but without leaving the rest of the family behind. Here are songs for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Succot, Chanukah, Tu B’Shvat, Purim, and Pesach, and even that universal ritual: sleepovers! While focused on acoustic country and folk, the band also dips into pop, rock, even gospel (mixing “Mi Chamocha” with “Wade in the Water). With high production values, upbeat performances, and heartfelt messages, this one will have even the grown-ups saying: “Again! Again!”

Eugene Marlow/ The Heritage Ensemble: Mosaica and Hallelujah!
“Mosaica,” Marlow explains, is a mash-up of “musica” and “mosaic”; the CD is subtitled to explain that the band “Reimagines Popular Hebraic Melodies.” And from a funk-swing “Hava Negila,” to a torch-y “Eliyahu HaNavi” and a be-bop “Ani Ma’amin,” the band provides just that. Hallelujah! is likewise subtitled “Jazzy and Classical Piano Variations from the Hebraic Songbook.” This time, they reimagine “Hatikva” as a jazzy waltz, “Mah Mishanah” as an etude, and a “Lecha Dodi” as a stroll down Bourbon Street with Mozart.

Naftule’s Dream: Blood
Taking their name from klezmer clarinet virtuoso Naftule Brandwein, the band adds to that instrument a cornet and tuba, drums, an accordion, and an electric guitar. The music is equally a tzimes of this and that, klezmer-but-also. One song is called “Chasing Ivo Livi,” which is the Jewish birthname of the classically continental Yves Montand, and the music is likewise an attempt to address the absurdities— painful and humorous— of being Jewish in the modern world. Montand was born in Italy, and two other songs are titled after Italian places; this may be a reference to the fact that first European spot Jews came (well, were brought) to was the Rome of the Caesars. Another song is a “Turkisher,” and Turkey is likewise a place where Jews met a very different “other.” The listening is not always easy, but it is rewarding.

Schizophonia: Cantorial Recordings Reimagined
This Yossi Fruchter project started with the cantorial record collection of his “zaidy,” a rabbi, and some of the grandfather’s and his own singing of liturgy. Then he says, tried to make the music “as adventurous as possible, while staying true to the spirit of the melodies.” The ensemble is a rock one— guitars, keys, bass, and drums, but also employs a banjo and a variety of world percussion. While the titles may be familiar— “Shir Hamalos,” “Tzur Chayenu,” “Vehu Rachum”— he takes them into new territory, from atmospheric to discordant, sometimes in the same piece. Imagine the Beatles’ “White Album”… performed by Yossele Rosenblatt and company.

Paul Shapiro: Shofarot Verses
Shapiro records for the Tzadik label, founded by John Zorn, and he follows Zorn’s relentlessly experimental ways. Shapiro’s axe is sax, and here he connects it with the shofar and the shepherd’s “Halil” (Hebrew for “flute”). Marc Ribot’s ringing guitar chimes in on many tracks as well, plus there is an actual shofar. Shapiro pulls from everything from Broadway (“Get Me to the Shul on Time”) to surf music; “Daven Dance” is a rave-up sure to get people on their feet. Middle Eastern tones permeate; there are the Turkish modes in the hip-swaying track called “In Phrygia”… and “With Reeds and Skins” imagines the saxophone accompanying the hand drums and bells of the ancient Nile. There are shades of jazz from 1970s lounge to a New Orleans funeral dirge.

Jewish music, like everything else in Jewish life, continues to evolve. We light candles instead of Hasmonean oil. The Maccabees never ate a latke, since potatoes originated in South America and didn’t hit the Old World until the 16th Century. “Sivivon” is a Hebrew word, and “dreidel” is Yiddish. And wax cylinders became vinyl records and then plastic CDs— today much music resides on silicon somewhere. But no matter how Chanukah is celebrated or how music is stored, Chanukah and music will always go together. 


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!

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