Eight Jewish albums hit high notes in ’07


At the risk of sounding like Walter Cronkite, what kind of a year has it been in Jewish music?

It’s been a very good year, though you wouldn’t know it from this annual compilation of five-star records — there are only eight this year, the fewest in the decade I’ve been doing this. Long-time stalwarts like Joel Rubin and Budowitz released new records, another wave of Israeli jazz musicians has been getting lots of work and Jewish musicians are bending that hyphen that separates genres into a pretzel. Finally, even if it was a year with only eight five-star albums, it was also a year in which there were a lot of 4 1&’8260;2-star efforts, and that is good news.

As Cronkite would say, “That’s the way it was in 2007.” Have a good 2008!

Balkan Beat Box: “Nu-Med” (JDub). Say what you will about post-modernism in other areas of endeavor, but in music, it has been a delicious wake-up call, a practical example of the (admittedly few) benefits of globalization. And Balkan Beat Box, with their second album, are the poster boys.

This set is a glorious mash-up of bhangra, Bedouin and Balkan brass; swirling reeds; and skirling turntable scratches. In short, it’s world hip-hop with a strong Middle-Eastern flavor, danceable in the extreme and endlessly inventive.

Budowitz: “Live” (Golden Horn). A decade or so ago, the klezmer revival pushed the pendulum from the New World to the Old Country, and an increasing number of bands began to explore music driven by violin and cymbal, rather than brass and reeds. Budowitz was one of the spearheads of that new approach.

This all-instrumental, double-CD live set, recorded in Switzerland in late November 2005, is a superbly played introduction to that sound for those who are not yet familiar with it. The bulk of the 33 selections are traditional tunes arranged by band members, with seven originals that blend in quite nicely.

If you didn’t look at the track listings, you wouldn’t know which songs were written in the 21st century and which were handed down through generations. Budowitz draws its repertoire from across the map of Jewish Eastern and Central Europe, and there isn’t a stale tune in the bunch. This is a set worth a seven-year wait.

Anat Cohen and the Anzic Orchestra: “Noir” (Anzic). Released simultaneously with “Poetica,” this set features Cohen, mainly on sax, dipping into a repertoire that deftly combines standards with her beloved Brazilian jazz — how about a medley of “Samba de Orfeu” and “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue”?

The big band behind her features some very familiar New York City names — Ted Nash; Cohen’s brother, Avishai; Ali Jackson Jr.; and Erik Friedlander, among them — and the charts by Oded Lev-Ari remind me of the delicious blend of funk and elegance that distinguishes Gil Evans or Bob Brookmeyer.

Although it is her session, Cohen is very generous with solo time, and there are telling contributions from many of the players. But the centerpiece is Cohen, stomping hard on tenor (“No Moon at All” and a combustible “Cry Me a River”), making creative use of the clarinet’s lower register (“La Comparsa”) and generally swinging hard throughout. Don’t look now, folks, but this is the calling card of a major new jazz voice.

Peter Himmelman: “The Pigeons Couldn’t Sleep” (Himmasongs). Himmelman is back with another set filled with brawny rockers, ranging from the funkified 12-bar blues of the title tune to the lacerating guitar-driven lurch of “A Dog Can Drink Stagnant Water.”

As usual, his lyrics are somewhat cryptic but unmistakably carry a heavy charge of spiritual self-evaluation. Certainly, there can’t be a more appropriate line for the Days of Awe than, “There comes a time to mend your way, and that time is now.”

Most of the songs are terse and punchy, with sudden, unexpected flashes of a lyricism Himmelman keeps concealed most of the time. You have to love a guy who can use a word like “exhalations” in a lyric, then follow it with a coruscating guitar solo.

The CD comes with a DVD of an hourlong documentary about Himmelman, “Rock God,” which displays his rather unexpected humor, frequently self-deprecating and always charming.

The Joel Rubin Ensemble: “Midnight Prayer” (Traditional Crossroads). Like the Budowitz set, this is Old World-style klezmer, albeit with Rubin’s clarinet providing the main voice and the presence of trumpeter Ferenc Kovacs adding a little more heft. The set was recorded in four days at the Operetta House in Budapest, and several of the band members are Hungarian, but the tunes are drawn from the historical treasure trove of Soviet-era field work by Moshe Beregovski and his predecessors in the An-Ski Expeditions.

The set has a delightfully jaunty feel to its klezmer numbers, starting with the up-tempo section of the opening track, “Khabno,” while the other musical source of the recording, Chasidic nigunim, provides a soul-wrenching counterpoint. Rubin is in fine form throughout but particularly electrifying on the nigunim and, most of all, on the title tune, where he weeps with the best of them.

I particularly like Claudio Jacomucci’s lithe accordion lines and interplay between cymbalom master Kalman Balogh and the violinists, Sandor Budai and David Chernyavsky. I realize that Rubin is busier than ever with his teaching, writing and producing duties, but I hope we don’t have to wait 10 years for another recording of his own masterful playing.

Metropolitan Klezmer: “Traveling Show” (Rhythm Media). There used to be two complaints about live rock albums. Either the band just played their greatest hits exactly as they had on record — who needs a live recording that’s nothing but a reprise of the studio, only with the mistakes intact? Or they indulged their arty sides with long, dull solos.

Old-line klezmer wasn’t as much of an improviser’s art as, say, jazz, but contemporary new klez is much more so. And that means that a live set like this new one from the Metros is welcome.

Jerusalem


"A voice from the heavens/

Carries down to the whole world/

The angel is crying above/

Lamenting his son’s image."

Israeli countertenor David D’or might be singing about himself in the ethereal song, "A Voice From the Heavens." With a three-and-a-half-octave range, the crossover pop and classical star has been compared to Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli with a Middle Eastern flavor.

This month, D’or joins the Keshet Chaim Dance Ensemble to celebrate its 20th anniversary, with "Neshama: Stories of the Soul," a multimedia production focusing on the central importance of Jerusalem as a symbol and experience of human life. "Neshama," which is funded in part by the Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership, a Jewish Federation beneficiary, uses music, song, visuals and narration spanning the time of creation until present day.

With six gold albums to his name in both the classical and popular genres, D’or is a perfect candidate to bring Jerusalem to life. Last month, the angelic singer was selected to represent Israel at the 49th Eurovision, the international song competition. Although Eurovision is often scoffed at internationally, and virtually ignored in America, a number of stars have gotten their start from the contest, like ABBA, Celine Dion and Julio Iglesias. Since it began competing in 1973, Israel has won the contest three times, most infamously with transsexual Dana International in 1998.

D’or’s upcoming performance in Los Angeles is par for the course. He has often collaborated with other artists, beginning in the army and later at Habima Theater, with such artists as Habreirah Hativ’it, Shlomo Bar and Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. But neither Los Angeles nor Eurovision should make D’or sweat, because he has performed in the Vatican for the pope since 1995.

While D’or’s eclectic performances of "Amazing Grace," "Phantom of the Opera" and original songs to classical works by Bach and Handel have brought him worldwide attention in the classical world, back home with the younger crowd, he’s become a radio star with timely tunes like this one:

"Protect the world, little boy/

There are things that should not be seen/

Protect the world, little boy/

If you see you’ll stop to be/

Hero of the world, little boy/

With the smile of angels,

Protect the world, little boy/

Because we already haven’t succeeded."

"Neshama: Stories of the Soul" with David D’or and the Kesehet Chaim Dance Ensemble, Feb. 21, 8:30 p.m. ICC, L.A. Scottish Rite Auditorium, 4357 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. For tickets, visit www.kcdancers.org or call (818) 986-7332.