New Year’s Sounds

The number “three” doesn’t play an especially important part in Jewish lore and customs. But the pre-High Holy Day musical rush brought to my desk several trios of related recordings, so it’s fitting to deal with them in groups of threes.

1. Three sets ostensibly inspired by Jewish mysticism:

Dieter Buwen and Günter Priesner: “Die Sephiroth” (Col Legno). Buwen is both composer and organist, accompanying saxophonist Priesner on this rather academic program of duets. An earnest but dull remnant of late high modernism, the title piece inadvertently points up the limitations of classical sax technique, ignoring the expressive possibilities of the instrument almost completely. Buwen is self-effacing in the extreme, content to provide ground figures for Preisner to bounce off. Strange to think that one could write music this bland about a subject so charged with emotion. Rating: Two Stars.

Hasidic New Wave: “Kabalogy” (JAM). This is HNW’s weakest set to date, a rather tepid collection of Jewish jazz-rock cliches, well played but uninspired. Frank London and Greg Wall are incapable of making an album that is without interest, but I expect more from these guys. And the Dead Kennedys remake attacking Rudy Giuliani is just shrill. Rating: Three Stars.

Zohar: “Keter” (JAM). Wow! Zohar is Uri Caine’s Jewish project (as opposed to his hard-bop piano gigs), spearheaded by his incredibly fluent keyboard work and the vocal gymnastics of Sephardi Cantor Aaron Bensoussan, aided immeasurably by percussionist Gilad, among others. A seamless amalgam of Middle-Eastern and Sephardic musics with post-bop jazz and one of the most exciting records I have heard all year. From a flamenco-ish “Eyshet Chayil” to a salsa-rhythmed ode to the temple, this is brilliant stuff. Caine’s powerful two-handed attack echoes McCoy Tyner and Herbie Hancock, but the results are all his own. A real rarity, a “world music” fusion that preserves the aesthetic integrity of all its parts and that isn’t soporific. Rating: Five Stars.

Elias and Company

You may know Jonathan Elias as the guy who composed the music to Chaplin and 9 1/2 Weeks. Or most of the songs on the Yes album, Union. Or the ditty to the original MTV promo, the one where the astronaut plants the MTV flag on the moon.

So it may come as a surprise that Elias’ latest project is an album that has soared to the top of Billboard’s classical crossover chart. The Prayer Cycle (Sony Classical) is holding fast at number six, not far below the new Star Wars CD.

It’s a multilingual, New Age-y, nine-movement choral symphony featuring Alanis Morissette (yes, Alanis Morissette) singing in French and Hungarian. Linda Ronstadt croons in Spanish; James Taylor performs a medieval prayer; and Israeli artist Ofra Haza sings a duet, Forgiveness, with the late Pakistani-Muslim, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. There’s a personal chant by Perry Farrell, the punk rock singer from Jane’s Addiction and Porno for Pyros, who apparently has been exploring his Jewish roots.&’009;

Elias, who composes free music for Amnesty International ads, says he began writing The Prayer Cycle while brooding about the future of the mankind during his wife’s pregnancy three years ago. I was nervous about bringing Lilli into this world, he said, and my symphony became a prayer that the future is not like the present.

Morissette telephoned Elias just a few days after he sent an early version of the piece to her manager. She was so taken with the music that she agreed to sing on half the album. Morissette even composed her own lyrics and melodies for the project. We both come from Hungarian lineage, mine Jewish, hers Christian, so we clicked immediately about her singing in Hungarian, Elias says.

Yet the composer was jittery when Morissette, the big rock star, arrived for her first recording session in L.A. But after the first 10 seconds I was at ease, Elias says. Alanis was totally cool. And I was just awestruck by her ability. She’s only 24, but she can hold her own with people like [African artist] Salif Keita.

Sadly, Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahn unexpectedly died before he could finish recording his duet with Ofra Haza. The Jewish artist had to improvise to fill in the blanks. Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahn was so open and excited about working with an Israeli singer, Elias says. He knew that we were breaking cultural and political boundaries. — Naomi Pfefferman, Entertainment Editor.