New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: jewish music

Haunting Music From Happier Times

While the past year has seen a lot of artists desperately mining their archives for concert recordings in order to maintain some semblance of a performing career, violinist Meg Okura’s Live at the Stone album with her NPO Trio is not one of those releases. This 2016 concert was one of the last at the iconic venue’s original Alphabet City digs before it moved to the New School, only to be shuttered in the lockdown. This particular set – released a couple of years ago and still streaming at Bandcamp – is expansive, klezmer-centric, and despite the energetic interplay between Okura, pianist Jean-Michel Pilc and soprano saxophonist Sam Newsome, is rather dark.

As the initial 38-minute improvisation – divided up into six separate sections here – gets underway, Okura and Pilc are at their most orchestral. The violinist plays through a series of effects including delay, loops and massive amounts of reverb. The pianist, for the most part, maintains a glittering High Romantic gravitas.

Pilc echoes Okura’s cascades as she runs them through reverb turned up to the point of slapback. Building a series of builds variations, she’s joined by Newsome, who takes centerstage achingly as Pilc and Okura rustle and rumble underneath.

About three minutes in, Okura introduces the stark, central 19th century klezmer theme, Mark Warshawsky’s Oyfn Pripetchik. Newsome searches longingly with his microtonal washes until Pilc and Okura bring a steady rhythm back, the piano taking over scurrying, pointillistic variations. Then the violin moves to the foreground, leading the music from plaintive and insistent to spare and starry. Newsome’s stark clarinet-like tone, especially in the most somber moment here, fits this music perfectly.

Somber chromatics come front and center and remain there the longest in the fourth segment. Newsome leads the group down into minimalism, Pilc raising the energy with his jackhammer pedalpoint, a bit of a klezmer reel and a brief minor-key ballad without words. Newsome drives the band to a chilling, shivery coda.

There are two other improvisations here. The first, Unkind Gestures, is based on Coltrane’s Giant Steps, is vastly more carefree and jauntily conversational, Pilc’s rumbles and basslines contrasting with Newsome’s keening, harmonically-laced duotones. Okura opens the almost nineteen-minute closing number, Yiddish Mama No Tsuki, with a sizzling klezmer solo, Pilc following with eerie belltones down to what sounds like an altered version of the old standard Mein Yiddishe Mama. Revelry and wry quotes interchange with airy acidity, disorienting clusters, a brooding Newsome solo and surreal blues from Okura and Pilc.

One quibble: not one but two tracks cut off right in the middle of gorgeously melismatic Newsome solos, a real faux pas. People who listen to this kind of music have long attention spans and don’t care how long a track is.

Jacob Mühlrad’s Somber Choral Works Explore Ancient Jewish Themes

Swedish composer Jacob Mühlrad‘s new choral album Time – streaming at Spotify – weaves ancient Jewish melodies and rapturous original themes into a hauntingly intricate web of sound. Fredrik Malmberg and Ragnar Bohlin conduct the Swedish Radio Choir with an aptly meticulous touch throughout this serious, brooding, often gloomy and potently relevant music. Mühlrad seems determined to become the Jewish Arvo Part, and so far he’s off to a good start.

The album opens with Anim Zemirot, a five-part suite of miniatures inspired by the concluding hymm from the Jewish liturgy. Slow, somber waves rise and subside, often with a bracing contrast between men’s and women’s voices. As celebratory music goes, this is pretty dark.

The album’s central, title suite draws on the Tower of Babel myth and the increasingly arduous challenge to find global unity across borders. The composer bases it on the word “time” in 104 different languages. Like the album’s first track, its gravitas pulses slowly in waves, spaciously drifting or suddenly looming into the sonic picture. As he does throughout the album, Mühlrad employs pretty much the totality of the available spectrum, ominous lows balanced by similarly uneasy highs. Subtle echo effects are a deftly executed touch. Repetitive, rising figures which fall just short of imploring are very striking, as the ending, which is unexpected and too good to give away. Slow and methodical as this is, it’s also very challenging to sing, and the group rise to the occasion.

The simply titled Nigun is more nebulously immersive, with its long, sustained, enigmatically close-harmonied motives, a sort of liturgical paraphrase with a terse tenor solo at the center. The concluding suite, Kaddish, is a Holocaust remembrance utilizing texts by Elie Wiesel and the composer’s late grandfather – a survivor – along with the traditional prayer for the dead. The sheer stillness of the introduction packs a wallop, in contrast with the incantatory yet similarly otherworldly pace the ensemble reach as Mühlrad builds momentum.

Much as this is compelling music, the decision to separate each suite into its parts – many of them cut off suddenly after less than two minutes – becomes frustrating, and jars the listener out of a reverie. If that’s intended to boost Spotify nanopayments, someday somebody at the record label might have enough pocket change for a bus ride home.

Frank London’s Latest Soulful Epic Commemorates Ghettoes Around the World

Frank London may be the foremost trumpeter in all of klezmer music. He’s without a doubt the most ambitious. His epic new album Ghetto Songs – streaming at Spotify – is just out today, the anniversary of the murderous Nazi invasion of the Warsaw ghetto. The album also commemorates the five hundredth anniversary of the founding of the first Jewish ghetto, in Venice in 1516. It’s a mix of familiar material, some of it reinvented, along with more obscure tunes.

As London acknowledges, ghettoes are complex institutions. They can be places of refuge, but historically have also mirrored the repression of the societies around them: after all, in an enlightened world, there is no need for ghettoes to exist.

Ghettoes can serve as centers of cultural continuity, but often at the price of losing contact with developments beyond their walls. This vast project underscores the kind of musical alchemy that can result when sounds from ghettoes around the world, from Eastern Europe, to South Africa, to South Central Los Angeles, are open to everyone.

Obviously, cultural cross-pollination like this flies in the face of the lockdowner divide-and-conquer agenda. The purpose of surveillance-based “health passports,” for example, is not only to kill off entire populations with the needle of death: it’s also meant to prevent those smart enough not to take it from escaping to free countries or states. Under the lockdown, the world truly is a ghetto.

That classic War hit is one of the songs on the album, reinvented with a Pink Floyd digital chill beneath London’s soulful one-man brass section and slinky organ work. He opens the record with a brief, carnivalesque, strutting take of the Italian folk tune Amore An, sung with coy glee by Karim Sulayman over the tongue-in-cheek pulse of bassist Gregg August and drummer Kenny Wollesen.

Accordionist Ilya Shneyveys and cellist Marika Hughes join as Sulayman and Sveta Kundish exchange Renaissance counterpoint in a stately madrigal by Venetian-Jewish composer Salomone Rossi. Then Kundish takes over the mic in Mordechai Gebirtig’s elegantly pulsing klezmer classic Minutn Fun Bitokn, London cutting loose with one of his signature, chromatically simmering solos.

Cantor Yanky Lemmer turns in a spine-tingling, dynamic take of the antiwar anthem Oseh Shalom over stately piano-based art-rock. Kundish brings an optimistic calm to an Indian carnatic theme, then Sulayman brings back the operatic drama over a somber backdrop in La Barcheta.

Sulayman and Kundish return to duet on the angst-fueled ballad Ve’etah El Shaddai. Shneyveys leads the charge in the lighthearted South African romp Accordion Jive. Then Sulayman and Kundish keep the party going in the flamenco-tinged dance tune Tahi Taha.

London’s pensive, sustained lines anchor Lemmer’s impassioned intensity in Retsey, the album’s biggest, most enveloping epic. Sulayman and Kundish close the album with with a benedictory duet on the Hanukah hymn Ma’Oz Tzur. As eclectically captivating as much of this is, nothing beats Sir Fank London in concert. Maybe there’s somewhere in Brooklyn’s Satmar community – who helped kickstart his lifelong plunge into global Jewish sounds – where we can see him play this summer.

Fun fact: Sir Frank London was knighted by the government of Hungary.

In Memoriam: Jewlia Eisenberg

Everything Jewlia Eisenberg did was big. The way she flashed that knowing smile. That hearty laugh. Her feisty sense of humor and lust for life. Her travels, which took her all over the globe in search of what would become an encyclopedic knowledge of music from across the Jewish diaspora.

Her generosity. She wore her heritage proudly, right down to how she spelled her name. But she didn’t just sit on that vast body of scholarship, or her commitment to social justice. As she saw it, it was only obvious that she should share her passion for, say, Bosnian protest songs or Jewish lesbian ballads from across the centuries, with any random audience who might be where she was.

As the leader of carnivalesque Eastern European folk-punk band Charming Hostess and innumerable other projects, she always found the universality in whatever music she was singing. She was a klezmer maven and also a soul mama, a cinephile, a theatre person and a devotee of dance, and did soundtracks for all of those media. Her repertoire ranged from ancient, witchy Babylonian themes to hip-hop-inspired theatrics and in the end, African-American gospel and blues in her Book of J project with guitar wizard Jeremiah Lockwood. Her career was over far too soon: we lost her this past March 11. Ostensibly, she succumbed to a rare immune disorder: it’s not known if she was given one of the needles of death, but that seems unlikely, considering how smart she was.

She leaves behind considerable scholarly work and an eclectically entertaining discography, both as a bandleader and solo artist. She sang at big auditoriums around the world, and also held down a number of Barbes residencies. She loved making field recordings. Fortuitously, this blog’s archive includes one of Eisenberg singing with Book of J at Barbes in mid-July 2018, a show that got an enthusiastic thumbs-up at the time. Eisenberg would no doubt approve of the idea, if not that the tape still needs to be properly catalogued: she was always as much a consummate pro as bon vivant. Condolences to all who had the good fortune to know her, work with her or witness her charismatic antics onstage.

Summoning the Witches with Ayelet Rose Gottlieb

We just went through a wild month of eclipses, so what could be more appropriate than an album of 13 Lunar Meditations Summoning the Witches? That’s the title of singer Ayelet Rose Gottlieb’s new moon-themed album, streaming at Bandcamp. The concept is counterintuitive: where you might typically expect calm, nocturnal, possibly mysterious themes, this is a generally playful, upbeat record.

As usual, Gottlieb’s songs here span a vast number of styles, from jazz, to art-rock, to sounds of the Middle East and the avant garde. The lyrics are in many different languages as well. With a joyous surrealism, she finds moon imagery in unexpected public places in the first number, Lotte and the Moon, set to Aram Bajakian’s hypnotically loopy, pointillistic guitar backdrop with a deviously scrambling Ivan Bamford drum solo midway through. It reminds of Carol Lipnik at her most exuberant.

The second number, Yare’ah is a spare, bouncy Israeli tune spiced with Eylem Basaldi’s spiky pizzicato violin, Bajakian’s guitar and the rhythm section: that’s Stéphane Diamantakiou on bass. Mond – “moon” in German – is a surreal cut-and-paste mashup of a blippy indie classical chorale and a spoken word piece contemplating the passing of generations.

The astrologically-themed Venus and the Moon has a balletesque pulse, a tango-inflected melody and a tiptoeing bass solo. Moon Story has sailing violin and vocalese balanced by punchy bass and starkly jangly guitar.

Wafting, Middle Eastern flavored violin takes centerstage behind Gottlieb’s spoken word and wordless vocals in Patience, a spacy soundscape. Yasmoon’s Moon, the most haunting and vividly nocturnal piece here, is also a showcase for plaintive violin and Bajakian’s acerbically rhythmic, oud-like phrasing. Dissipating Discus, the free jazz freakout afterward, is irresistibly funny: hang with it until the punchline.

A Spanish-language bass-and-vocal bendiction kicks off the album’s strongest track, Moon Over Gaza, a stark, politically-themed, guitar-fueled noir swing tune. The group follow Tsuki, the most ambient tableau on the record, with its longest and most darkly orchestral epic, Traveler Woman. Gottlieb winds it up with Desert Moon, an only slightly less expansive, slinky, latin-tinged anthem. Ages come and go, but the moon remains for us to dance in its light.

A Sly Christmukah Ballad From Jazz Guitarist Peter Curtis

A couple of years back jazz guitarist Peter Curtis put out the album Christmas With Your Jewish Boyfriend, a competently played collection of Xmas songs written by Jews. And there’s historical context for that. More than a century ago, for example, it wasn’t uncommon for Jews in Russia and the Pale to celebrate the Christian holiday. What’s somebody else’s simcha, anyway, when it all used to be Saturnalia?

The album’s title track is the real piece de resistance, and Curtis’ only original on it. And it’s a hoot, Curtis crooning to his shiksa GF about all the ways they can have Christmukah fun. No spoilers!

Soprano Meets Bass Reinvent Sephardic Treasures with Passion and Elegance

The new Sephardic Treasures album by the Soprano Meets Bass project – streaming at Spotify – is a gorgeous and expansive take on a very old idea. Classical ensembles have been appropriating ancient Jewish themes for centuries; this album is more eclectic, drawing on tango, flamenco and jazz as well. In general, the music is sleeker than you would expect from a klezmer or tango band playing this material. For those of us who don’t speak Ladino, singer Ana María Ruimonte gives the material much more clarity than most operatically-trained vocalists typically deliver. And she maintains power and edge through many of the melodies’ challenging, rapidfire melismas and ornaments.

This is a long, rewarding album: fifteen songs. Most of them are sad; kings typically do not fare well in them. Minor keys are everywhere, along with the occasional slashing Middle Eastern mode. Bandleader/bassist Alan Lewine puts on a master class in terse, purposeful solos, notably a triumphantly churning facsimile of flamenco guitar playing in a Romany-flavored anthem toward the end of the record.

Some of the songs have a full rhythm section, with Shai Wetzer on drums; others feature lighter percussion by Víctor Monge. Pianist Chano Domínguez, trumpeter Duane Eubanks, flutist Hadar Noiber,  Spanish guitarist Julián Vaquero and violinist Alicia Svigals all punch in purposefully, often with echoes of flamenco or the Balkans, when the vocals drop out, or in response to Ruimonte’s lyrical phrasing. She sings in character, whethe plaintive, pensive – or simply unable to keep a straight face, in a goofy nursery rhyme about a cat. That’s the album’s lone moment of comic relief.

In a handful of songs, she reaches for the rafters with arioso power, especially in a dancing, subtly shifting North African-influenced ballad. There are quieter songs and laments here as well, including one with a spare, hypnotic, almost Indian atmosphere, an almost completely rubato tableau, and a welcome departure into flamenco jazz. What a feast for fans of flamenco, klezmer and classical music alike

A Quietly Searing, Politically-Fueled New Album From Guitarist Ty Citerman and Bop Kabbalah

Guitarist Ty Citerman’s Bop Kabbalah is best known for rocking out centuries-old Jewish themes. His latest release under the Bop Kabbalah monicker, When You Speak of Times to Come – streaming at Bandcamp – is just as radical, and radically different. As so many artists have done during the lockdown, this is far more intimate, a trio record with singers Sara Serpa and Judith Berkson.

This one’s all about contrasts. Citerman shifts between stark, acidic minimalism, cold sparks of noise and the minor-key growl he’s best known for as the two women add lushness and haunting close harmonies. This album often sounds like it’s made by a much larger ensemble. Serpa and Berkson often switch between channels in the mix: the former is more misty yet also more crystalline, while Berkson’s voice is more edgy and forceful. Together they cover all the bases.

They also deliver spoken word in both English and Yiddish in a handful of righteously revolutionary interludes between songs, along with the album’s rather exasperated opening prayer. The brief first song has simple, somber counterpoint between the two women and spiky harmonics from Citerman.

The second spoken-word interlude instructs us to “Demand bread from tsars and dukes, demand human rights, demand everything we’ve created.” In year of the lockdown, that has never been more of an imperative! The women’s uneasy close harmonies and blippy quasi-operatics float and dance as Citerman builds from icepick incisions to a snarl in Geyt Brider Geyt.

“With one hand you gave us the Constitution, with the other you took it back…you thought you could divert the revolution, that was your dirty politics. Down with you, you executioner, you muderer, get off the throne, no one believes in you anymore, only in the red flag,” the trio warn as the album’s fifth cut slowly builds up steam. Citerman winds down his multitracks, hits his distortion pedal and cuts loose with a roar.

Berkson sings the moody, steady Ver Tut Stroyen Movern Palatsn – an exploration of who does all the heavy lifting, and who gets the benefit of all that lifting – against Serpa’s signature vocalese, and Citerman’s burning dynamic shifts.

They wind down the hypnotic, pulsing, intertwining Es Rirt Zikh with an expansive, exploratory solo. The three build considerably more haunting variations on an old nigun in the first part of the suite Future Generations – is that Berkson or Serpa on piano?

The women’s harmonies are especially plaintive in the second part, At Night, a furtively slashing revolutionary tableau: Gordon Grdina’s darkest work comes to mind here. The album’s grittiest and most unhinged interlude is part three, Hidden Rage. The chillingly chromatic concluding movement, with its brooding tradeoffs between piano and guitar, serves as the title track. If there ever was an album for the end of the year on the brink of a holocaust delivered via lethal injection, this is it.

Frank London and Adeena Karasick’s Darkly Gorgeous New Album Salutes a Feminist Archetype

“You are bringing in the big guns, opening the sluicegates with your hyperdramatic extra sex, a swishy riff, pithy swift grifters…like a feisty zeitgeist, a forever Riviera,” poet Adeena Karasick freestyles, saluting her title character in one of the early tracks on the new album Salome: Woman of Valor, her new collaboration with iconic trumpeter Frank London., streaming at his music page. It’s a psychedelic, globally-inspired, feminist reclamation of the Salome archetype, recasting her as a fearless, indomitable, multi-faceted persona rather than uber-slut. Typically, Karasick’s intricate, wickedly playful, erudite solo spoken world interludes are spaced in between the individual songs here.

The enticement builds over an echoey wash from Shai Bachar’s electric piano, Deep Singh’s tabla and London’s lyrically pensive trumpet in the album’s first musical number, Song of Salome. As it goes on, London channels more of the acerbic, chromatic edge and meticulous melismas that have characterized his sound as one of this era’s great klezmer and Balkan brass players.

Playing with a mute, he introduces a bracing, suspenseful Ethiopian theme over a chilly, techy haze in Garden of Eros, Karasick celebrating the pleasures of the flesh amid the “cinders of avarice.” London shifts to a hypnotic mashup of Ethiopiques, qawwali and Romany psychedelia in Drown Me, exchanging terse, soulful trumpet riffs with a swirly synth as the tabla holds down the groove.

Dance of Desire has a darkly slinky trip-hop ambience, Karasick deviously referencing a half century or more worth of lyrics, from Wilson Pickett to Leonard Cohen as London’s trumpet teases the listener. Bind Me has a gorgeously brooding, contrapuntal Hasidic melody and a metaphorically loaded lyric: this Salome doesn’t like being restrained.

To introduce Johnny, Karasick sends a shout out to Jean Genet and other bad-boy figures before London’s balmy trumpet and tersely circling, uneasy piano enter the picture. Martyrology, a grisly chronicle of Jewish mystics tortured and murdered over the years, makes a chilling contrast, followed by a haunting, Middle Eastern and Indian-tinged interlude from London that brings to mind Ibrahim Maalouf.

London returns to an anthemic mix of murky Ethiopiques and woozy psychedelia in Yes I Will Yes Say Yes. He shifts to the Middle Eastern freygish mode for the undulating Dance of the Seven Veils, part klezmer, part Palestinian shamstep, featuring an imploring vocal cameo by Manu Narayan . The group return to dusky, forlorn Ethiopian ambience to wind up the record with Kiss Thy Myth. Look for this one on the best albums of 2020 list here, scheduled for the end of the year.

Klezmer-Ish Put a Playful, Eclectic Spin on Gorgeous Old Jewish Melodies

There are plenty of bands who put a darkly improvisational spin on old Jewish folk songs, but Klezmer-ish are different. Take the version of the popular Klezmer Freilach, which opens their new album Dusty Road, streaming at Spotify. There isn’t just romping clarinet – that’s Thomas Verity on bass clarinet. There’s also cello, and bouzouki, and hints of Romany jazz, and a nebulous, suspenseful interlude midway through. Among other klezmer groups, Mames Babegenush are the obvious comparison, but Klezmer-ish are more lavishly textured.

The group strut in unison through the album’s second number, Padelasol Fetalor: what a commitment to staccato. They build an elegant, moody web of counterpoint in Volver, Marcel Becker’s bass anchoring the clarinet, Rob Shepley’s  imploring violin and Concettina Del Vecchio’s accordion weaving a veil and then piercing it.

September Sun comes across as a more hi-de-ho take on Django Reinhardt, with a spare, jaunty bass-and-guitar conversation. Becker’s wistfully bowed bass solo opens Kicho, eventually pairing up with lush, majestic accordion. A broodingly crescendoing bass-carinet-and- bass duet opens another popular standard, Hershel, kicking off a catchy minor-key romp by the whole band and then a ridiculous cartoon-horse interlude.

Spare bass clarinet and guitar pair off in Amud Ha’Esch, then pensively sweeping strings take over. I’m Confessin’ isn’t a klezmer tune, but this slowly simmering swing arrangement fits the instrumentation well. Django Reinhardt’s  Blue Drag works even better in this context, Shepley firing off the album’s most lusciously spiky guitar solo.

With its steady, ambling groove and unexpectedly psychedelic guitar, Give Me a Lift to Tzfat is the most chromatically tasty track on the record. The group pair a searchingly clarinet-fueled doina with a similarly moody, bluesy sher and close with the title cut, underscoring the fact that they excel the most with instrumentals.