September 21, 2018

Book of J Steps Into the Musical Past

A new duo, Book of J, brings together gospel and bluegrass, klezmer and cantorial music for a unique twist on contemporary Jewish music. Guitarist and singer Jeremiah Lockwood and vocalist Jewlia Eisenberg combine their shared passion for Yiddish songs of love and protest, devotional piyyutim and traditional American folk music into an album that resonates emotionally and spiritually. They will bring the blues-inflected and history-inspired songs from their stunning self-titled debut album to the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles on Feb. 9.

Lockwood is the frontman of the Sway Machinery, a horn-driven quintet that combines rhythmic Afrobeat music with cantoral chanting. Eisenberg leads the folk rock troupe Charming Hostess, an Oakland-based group that records conceptual albums that draw on revolutionary Jewish history and culture, as well as African-American gospel and protest music.

A good indication of Book of J’s political leanings is the stirring “Khavele,” a standout track on its self-titled debut album, released on Feb. 2 via 3rd Generation Recordings. It’s an adaptation of a radical Yiddish worker’s song about a Jewish woman who is killed by police violence during a strike. It ends with the lines, “Lovers, we have sworn a pact for life and death. We stand and cry as comrades, the red flags in hand.”

The band’s very Jewish name derives from Harold Bloom’s landmark 1990 book, “Book of J,” which argues that the biblical books of Genesis, Exodus and Numbers were written by a woman living in the court of King Solomon about 3,000 years ago.

Lockwood’s vocal styling is a direct influence of his father, composer Larry Lockwood, and his grandfather,  prominent 20th-century Cantor Jacob Konigsberg.

“I sang in my grandfather’s choir. I grew up taking voice lessons with him,”Lockwood said. “I think in my family he was quite idolized. He was definitely a major inspiration for becoming a musician.”

He developed his distinctive fingerpicking style by studying under his friend and mentor, the late Carolina Slim. The Piedmont blues musician met Lockwood in the mid-1990s, and they performed in the New York subway for a dozen years.

Eisenberg shares Lockwood’s passion for Jewish liturgical traditions as well as old gospel songs. She was raised in an activist family, and her music career started at UC Berkeley’s Barrington Hall, a student housing co-op steeped in radical politics and protests. She founded Charming Hostess in order to explore her musical and literary interests, which range from Italian Jewish anti-fascist songs to Bosnian resistance poetry. “It’s ambitious but it’s not super abrasive,” Eisenberg said. “It’s something that people can listen to, but it can also be provocative and thoughtful.”

The two musicians share a passion for Jewish liturgical traditions as well as old gospel songs.

The two met when Eisenberg was working at a Jewish music pop-up shop in New York and Lockwood came in to perform.

“We realized we knew a lot of songs together. It was a canon of songs that I had grown up singing the social justice iteration, and he knew the religious iteration,” Eisenberg said.

They began to play songs together after Lockwood relocated from New York to Palo Alto, Calif., a few years ago. He is writing a doctoral dissertation at Stanford University on cantorial music in the Chasidic community.

Lockwood draws inspiration from some of these Chasidic musicians, such as Yaacov “Yanky” Lemmer, a world-renowned cantor and the chazzan at Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York.

“He’s a very soulful guy and brilliant performer. His voice is like a time machine. He’s a revivalist. He listens to old records from the ’20s and ’30s and re-creates the sound of them,” Lockwood said of Lemmer. “Stepping into the past allows him to inhabit the present moment as an artist.”

The same could be said of Book of J, with the duo’s fascination with long-lost Jewish liturgical and gospel tunes.

The most recognizable song from Book of J’s album is “The Partisan,” a ballad that Leonard Cohen popularized about the French Resistance in World War II. It became an anthem for the duo during the tumultuous 2016 presidential campaign.

For now, Book of J plans to remain a duo, as they continue to mine the rich musical heritage of their country and their religion.

Book of J performs at the Skirball Cultural Center on Feb. 9. For tickets, visit skirball.org.