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.

Klezmer: Backward and Forward

Three new klezmer recordings offer a listen into the genre’s past, present and possible future.

Klezmer was originally the soundtrack to the Jewish wedding, but no band has attempted to recreate such an event until recently. Working with people who were in Eastern Europe at the time klezmer was developed, the band Budowitz — named for the maker of their accordionist’s instrument — crafted "Wedding Without a Bride" (Buda Musique, $18.98).

In 70 minutes, Budowitz ushers the listener through the whole wedding day, from the bride’s bedecken to the groom’s processional to the in-laws’ dance. The songs conjure up the sadness of the bride leaving her family, the joy of the new union and the lighthearted pomp of the families, considered royalty for the day. There are quite a few surprises for the wedding attendees, including a dance in which the couple’s parents mime a fight and reconciliation.

Another intriguing feature is the use of the cimbalom. This dulcimer-like instrument has strings across a sound-hole, like a guitar, but is played flat on a lap or table, and its seeming dozens of strings are struck by small sticks, like inside a piano. Its glinting, chiming tone is unfortunately not common in more recent klezmer ensembles.

Another highlight is the badchan, the jokester. This emcee serves and a poet, jester and ringleader, guiding the attendees through the wedding ceremony and spouting praise and admonishment to the young couple in exuberant Yiddish.

The CD comes with thesis-worthy liner notes, but it is more than an academic exercise. "Wedding Without a Bride" is a highly listenable introduction into klezmer for novices, while those familiar only with more recent takes on the form will also be entertained and enlightened.

The current state of klezmer is examined on "The Rough Guide to Klezmer" (World Music Network, $12.98). The Rough Guide series is like a musical version of Fodor’s, escorting listeners around the world through their headphones.

The Rough Guide volume on klezmer purports to be a overview of the current klezmer scene. It succeeds, however, in being an excellent overview of the Klezmatics and Naftule Brandwein, and the more intellectual approach to the genre in general. Now, these artists are key to klezmer. And other major players — like the Hankus Netsky’s Klezmer Conservatory Band, Brave Old World, the Flying Bulgar Klezmer Band and Budowitz — are profiled. But they are far from the limits of the style.

Inexplicably missing are such major figures as Giora Fiedman and Andy Statman. Further, some United States-born musicians stationed overseas are here, but natives like Britain’s Burning Bush and Italy’s KlezRoym are not. Also MIA are rising stars like Shawn’s Kugel and Tzimmes; Midwest favorites, like Chicago’s Tumbalalaika, Madison’s Yid Vicious and Cleveland’s Yiddishe Cup; and jokemeisters like Mickey Katz and Klezperanto. Clearly, there is not room for everyone. But their omission is hard to justify when five of the 18 tracks are by the Klezmatics or members thereof, while upwards of eight selections are Brandwein compositions.

One nice feature of the disc is that it presents the same tracks twice — once by Brandwein himself, once by a more recent band — in keeping with the disc’s subtitle: "Shtetl roots and New World revival." It closes with two divergent modern takes on a Brandwein classic as well.

Klezmatics fans will want the band’s whole-group and solo albums, and newcomers to klezmer would find this a skewed introduction. But those who like their klezmer somewhere between sugary freylachs and flavorless reproductions should find "The Rough Guide to Klezmer" a winning compilation.

"Wedding Without a Bride" is notable for the way it wrings many emotions from the same instruments. "Rough Guide to Klezmer," on the other hand, boasts the expected clarinets and violins, but also drums, pianos, a trombone, and a tuba.

Looking to the future, KlezSka announces itself as "part of the next wave in Jewish music." The band’s name explains its modus operandi: klezmer mixed with ska (punk-like protoreggae). The duo is comprised of composer and producer Glenn Tamir, who has played with the seminal Skatalites, and keyboardist Tommy Mandel, who has backed Bryan Adams and Dire Straits. The first half of their CD, "Rasta Meets the Rabbi" (Klezska, $18.95), is given to explorations of the places klezmer and ska might meet, melodically and rhythmically.

But this strange bird doesn’t really fly until the second half, which spins Jewish favorites as ska. There is a double dose of Debbie Friedman, "Elokai" and "L’Chi Lach" — arrangements she might consider borrowing. And "Ein Fiddler" uses a medley of "Fiddler on the Roof" and "Tradition" to invite Tevye from Anatevka to Kingston. In these and the following tracks, Tamir finds an island groove and rides it like a champion surfer.

Appropriately for the age of the Internet, Jewish music’s past, present and future are all available for listening right now. Who would have thought we’d live in a time when we could use the words "klezmer" and "download" in the same sentence?