Jewish music for the global village
by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., November 15, 2002) – Innovations in Jewish music continue to be made that go far beyond remaking or reviving traditional forms like klezmer. The most exciting performers are those who build upon these forms, updating them or recombining them with Jewish and non-Jewish musics in new and surprising ways.

There’s nothing particularly new about this – musicians have always been at the avant-garde, the leading edge, of any culture, and among the segments of society most likely to branch out beyond the perceived confines of the status quo. The story behind the Jewish holiday of Chanukah – which comes early this year, beginning on Friday night, November 29 -- speaks to many of these themes, and as such provides a timely occasion to survey recent developments in Jewish music.

New York-based folk ensemble Golem mines the much-overlooked cabaret repertoire of Yiddish and Eastern European song on “Libershmertzn (Love Hurts),” a delirious and deliciously sensual collection of pain and heartbreak songs from the Jewish, Gypsy, Serbian, Russian and Ukrainian traditions.

Trumpeter Steven Bernstein is best known in these parts as bandleader of Sex Mob, which has performed at Club Helsinki and Mass MoCA. On “Diaspora Blues” (Tzadik), Bernstein teams up with the Sam Rivers Trio to explore the affinities between the modal khazones, or cantorial music (particularly that of the late, great Moshe Koussevitzky) and the spiritually-inclined modal jazz of John Coltrane. The album is arranged in such a way that Bernstein’s musical compositions and “commentaries” are framed by his and the trio’s freewheeling interpretations of Koussevitsky’s music.

Group improvisation or “free jazz” alternates with soulful balladry on the CD, sometimes to jarring effect, but on repeated listening the relationships between the traditional and experimental material grow clearer. Highlights include a flute solo by Rivers, a jazz legend in his own right, on Bernstein’s composition, “Lucky,” and Bernstein’s solo on “Misratze B’Rachamim,” which could be what Miles Davis might have sounded like if he were a cantor. Also, the members of Rivers’s trio put down their bass and drumsticks and pick up saxophone and bass clarinet for the horn-plus-three-reed blowout version of “Ribino Shel Olom” that concludes the album on a high – and highly spiritual -- note.

Sephardic and Mizrakhi music – from the Jews of Spain and the Middle East, respectively – have yet to garner the following enjoyed by Eastern European-derived klezmer, but more groups are exploring this rich vein to great effect. The eponymous debut recording by the Austin-based, all-female quartet Divahn – the name means “collection of songs” in Hebrew, Persian and Arabic – featuring the soaring, Persian classical-influenced vocals of Galeet Dardashti, the haunting pulse of Michal Raizen’s cello, the incessant Indian-style grooves of percussionist Lauren DeAlbert and the heavenly group harmonies, could go far toward bringing these traditional melodies from Turkey, Persia and Iraq and Spain to a wider audience. The group’s version of “Ya Ribon Alam” finds common ground among an Aramaic text, a traditional Iraqi melody, South African mbube choral music and American banjo.

The Sons of Sepharad are an all-male vocal trio of world-renowned singers exploring a repertoire similar to that of Divahn, but with more of an emphasis on the voice, with instrumental accompaniment taking a back seat to this “Three Tenors” approach to Sephardic folk music. Alberto Mizrahi, Aaron Bensoussan and Gerard Edery are true masters, singing in Greek, Arabic, Hebrew, Ladino and Turkish. Highlights of the group’s eponymous debut on Sefard Records include Bensoussan’s Moroccan-style chanting on “Shimon Bar Yochai,” an ode to the great Kabbalistic master.

On “Le Magus” (Knitting Factory), the Ori Kaplan Shaat’nez Band makes some truly astounding global-village music, ranging from the soul-gospel/Middle Eastern fusion of “Mishba” – worth hearing alone for Kaplan’s sensual saxophone balladry – to the Gypsy frenzy of “Tromba De Zingari (New Yorkskiri).” But Kaplan’s quintet, featuring keyboards, bass and plenty of percussion, boasts a tight ensemble sound, even when the Israeli-born bandleader is blowing up a Coltranesque storm on original tunes like “Ash” or turning “My Yidishe Mama” into a slow, New Orleans funk/cha-cha.

Tim Sparks is a guitarist whose work garners raves in many fields; among his biggest fans are Bill Frisell and Leo Kottke, no slouches themselves with an axe. But Sparks has been slowly building a tremendous body of Jewish guitar music, and his third album on Tzadik, “At the Rebbe’s Table,” is his best yet, partly due to the terrific song selection, which includes old klezmer tunes, Sephardic and Mizrakhi numbers, and “Mahshav,” one of John Zorn’s Masada compositions, and partly due to the terrific ensemble of musicians who help out on this all-acoustic effort, including guitarist Marc Ribot, cellist Erik Friedlander and bassist Greg Cohen. One thing is clear: in Sparks’s hands, these Jewish melodies have a natural affinity for the six-stringed instrument.

The Boston-based Shirim Klezmer Orchestra gave Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite” a klezmerish spin a few years back with its excellent “Klezmer Nutcracker” recording. On “The Golden Dreydl” (Ryko) the group pairs with PRI radio host Ellen Kushner (“Sound and Spirit”), who narrates her rewritten version of the Nutcracker story, giving it a Chanukah spin interspersed with Shirim songs like “Dance of the Latkes Queen” and “Waltz of the Rugelah.”

As for klezmer, David Krakauer continues to push the envelope on the Yiddish instrumental music on “The Twelve Tribes” (Label Bleu), on which the clarinetist updates traditional dances like the kozatzke, the bulgar and the gasn nign with bits of jazz, funk, rock, TV music and hip-hop. As always, Krakauer’s virtuosic playing – as well as that of his band, Klezmer Madness – and his deep grounding in the traditional forms and melodies, keeps the work solidly grounded in the klezmer style.

There are other flavors of Jewish music to satisfy almost any musical taste, incluing Jamie Saft’s fusion of electronic dub, collage and death metal on “Breadcrumb Sins” (Tzadik); Yves Weyh’s fusion of French accordion music, jam-rock and Jewish themes on “Zakarya” (Tzadik); and legendary world-jazz flutist Herbie Mann’s new-age-tinged exploration of his ethnic background on “Eastern European Roots.”

[This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on November 14, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]

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