New Jewish music CDs

Oi Va Voi plays a cosmopolitan, cutting-edge fusion on its new album

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., December 18, 2003) – Hanukah, the eight-day Jewish commemoration of national and spiritual liberation, begins on Friday night, providing as good an excuse as any to survey recent recordings with Jewish content and theme.

The Hasidim of Eastern Europe revitalized Jewish music several hundred years ago, restoring communal singing to the forefront of the worship experience. Jonathan Harkham and David Brook’s “Darkcho” (Pappi-1 Studios) is imbued with the spirit of the Hasidic niggun, or worship melody. The album features 10 slow melodies in deceptively simple arrangements, lazily sung with acoustic guitar accompaniment and one other instrument providing contrast, either electric guitar, accordion or trumpet. The album has a very organic, informal feel, halfway between Bob Dylan’s “Basement Tapes” and Norah Jones’s “Come Away with Me.” There is a timeless folk feel to these very quiet, meditative tracks, but also a very artful sensibility behind the effort.

Jewish sounds bubble up through the international pop sheen and world-beat dance rhythms of Oi Va Voi’s “Laughter Through Tears” (Outcaste). The hip London sextet constructs songs that wouldn’t be out of place on albums by Nelly Furtado, Sting or Massive Attack out of the raw material of Ladino, Armenian and Yemenite melodies, klezmer clarinet and Old World fiddle. The songs include original English lyrics, a Hungarian tune and a lively, Eurobeat-style “D’ror Yikra” that could easily become a standard dance tune at weddings and bar mitzvahs. Call this rooted cosmopolitanism.

The New Orleans Klezmer Allstars have typically made some of the wildest music in modern klezmer, but on the group’s latest album, “Borvis” (Stretchy), they sound remarkably restrained – almost traditional. The group still plays fast and loose with klezmer rhythms and structures, but many of the tunes just lie there like sails without wind. There are a few good pieces here – Jonathan Freilich’s sharp lead guitar lines on “A Heimisher Sher” recall Ben Goldberg’s work with the New Klezmer Trio, “Freilich’s Phoenix Doina” explodes into a peppy dance number with terrific fiddling by David Rebeck, and clarinetist Robert Wagner blows up a storm on “Oy Tate S’iz Gut.” But in the end, one is left wondering, what happened to the Mardi Gras party?

“Di Eybike Mame (The Eternal Mother): Women in Yiddish Theater and Popular Song 1905-1929” (Wergo) anthologizes 23 vintage tracks of the great Yiddish women singers of the early-20th century in styles including operetta, musical comedy, cantorial and folk song. Familiar names including Nellie Casman, Molly Picon and Isa Kremer appear here on songs including favorites such as “Rozhinkes mit mandlen” and “A brivele der mamen,” but the collection also introduces lesser known singers and obscure but worthy material.

The first batch of recordings from the new Milken Archive of American Jewish Music on Naxos have been released, and they live up to what was promised when this groundbreaking effort to document the rich history of American Jewish music was first announced. The recordings combine impeccable musicianship with keen curatorial scholarship.

Particular standouts in the first handful of recordings include “Abraham Ellstein: Great Songs of the Yiddish Stage, Volume 1” and “Kurt Weill: The Eternal Road.” The Ellstein recording features favorites from the golden age of Yiddish musical theater and radio including “Abi Gezunt,” “Di Grine Kuzine” and “Oy Mame, Bin Ikh Farlibt” in sterling, dramatic new arrangements performed authentically by singers including Bruce Adler, Joanne Borts, Benzion Miller and Simon Spiro, with the Vienna Chamber Orchestra. The Weill recording is a revelation – the first commercial recording of Weill’s epic pageant that attempted nothing less than to recapitulate the history and drama of the Jewish people in song.

Another recording in the series, “Klezmer Concertos and Encores,” features newly recorded versions of concert pieces by the likes of Robert Starer, Paul Schoenfield, Jacob Weinberg and Osvaldo Golijov, inspired by the modes and motifs of Old World wedding music, performed by contemporary virtuosos including clarinetist David Krakauer and violinist Alicia Svigals (who will perform at the Spencertown Academy in Spencertown, N.Y., on December 20). All of the Milken CDs are illuminated by Neil W. Levin’s exhaustive, incisive liner notes.

Finally, Craig and Company has released “The Ultimate Jewish Music Collection,” a box-set of four CDs featuring themed compilations of contemporary Jewish pop, including “Celebrate Shabbat,” “Celebrate Hanukkah,” “Celebrate Passover” and “Celebrate Kids.” Each disk contains over a dozen cuts by the likes of Debbie Friedman, Neshama Carlebach, Pharaoh’s Daughter, Flory Jagoda, David Broza, Peter Yarrow and Joe Black.

[This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on December 19, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

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