All in all, 2006 was a very good year for Jewish music. Fourteen CDs won the five-star plaudit, which is certainly a hopeful sign and a pointed rejoinder to those naysayers who have been proclaiming the death of (choose one): 1) klezmer; 2) new Jewish music; 3) old Jewish music.
On the downside, however, four of those albums were the products of deceased composers/artists. But still, the Kiddush cup is better than 70 percent full.
Here are my top 10 Jewish records of the year in alphabetical order:
Morton Feldman: “String Quartet (1979)” (Naxos). From a performer’s standpoint, it would be hard to imagine a quartet piece more physically demanding than this one, which is nearly 80 minutes long, meant to be played very slowly and features some truly mind-blowing shifts in dynamics.
Feldman was one of the most creative and rigorous of Webern-influenced serialists, and his work rewards — no, demands — close attention. If you can give yourself over to this piece of music completely, you will be richly rewarded, but it is almost as tough a test for a listener as it is for a performer. This recording by the Group for Contemporary Music is masterful.
German Goldenshteyn: “A Living Tradition” (Living Traditions). This is not merely a very fine album of traditional klezmer, it is also a historical document of 20th century Jewish culture of incalculable value. Goldenshteyn, who died earlier this year at 71, was a bridge between the Jewish musicians of pre- and post-revolutionary Russia and the young musicians of the American klezmer renaissance.
He was a walking encyclopedia of klezmer tunes, carrying in his head more than 800 songs, almost none of them known here. Fortunately, he imparted them to those younger musicians, and they are being published posthumously.
Equally fortunate, he was recorded in December 2005 at KlezKamp so that we have an auditory record of his playing to go along with the notated one. He was a superb clarinetist, with a bedrock sense of time and a deep, throaty tone.
The band that backs him is excellent, and the sound is remarkably good, given that this session was rather off the cuff. A must for anyone who cares seriously about klezmer. Available from www.livingtraditions.org.
The Klezmatics: “Wonder Wheel” (JMG). This CD continues the Klezmatics’ collaborations with the Woody Guthrie Archives, which is looking like a very fruitful pairing. Drawing a wide range of moods and tones from the archives collection of previously unset lyrics, the band gets to show off its considerable range, from a funky faux-Latin “Mermaid Avenue” to a lovely Calpyso-ish lullaby, “Headdy Down,” to a weirdly Asiatic/alt.country “Pass Away” to a klezmer “Goin’ Away to Sea.”
One of the surprises of the set is how profoundly spiritual some of the Guthrie lyrics are; one expects the good-natured progressivism of something like “Come When I Call You” and “Heaven,” but the deeply felt religious feeling of “Holy Ground” is unexpected and moving.
David Krakauer and Socalled w/Klezmer Madness!: “Bubbemeises: Lies My Gramma Told Me” (Label Bleu). This is by far the most interesting synthesis of hip-hop and klezmer attempted to date. It helps that Krakauer and Socalled are on the same page; that Socalled’s beats give a deliciously herky-jerky underpinning to Krakauer’s natural affinity for eccentric rhythms, and that the band is one of the best in this music. If you come for Krakauer’s clarinet playing, you won’t be disappointed. He’s in fine form here.
For the most part, the hip-hop elements won’t put off the true believer, although the bizarre, dirge-like “Rumania, Rumania” may prove hard for some to swallow. But it is precisely in the synthesis, the mix of phat beats and klezmer, the use of sampling and cut-and-mix, that this CD represents a significant step forward.
Ljova: “Vjola: World on Four Strings” (Kapustnik). After hearing this extraordinary album, you’ll never tell another viola joke again. Ljova, a Russian émigré now living in New York, is a superb player and composer, and this set, mostly of originals, ranges in emotion and colors across the globe.
Multitracked alongside accordionist Michael Bregman, Ljova is a virtuosic violist who can make the instrument do just about anything, and the set runs gracefully from the poignant to the jolly. This brilliant debut is available from www.kapustnik.com.
Jeremiah Lockwood: “American Primitive” (Vee-Ron). Lockwood got his start playing straight-ahead acoustic blues, and this fascinating recording draws on that part of his background. But “American Primitive” is anything but straight-ahead.
Imagine Captain Beefheart “unplugged,” and you have some idea of what this set sounds like. Dark and brooding variations on delta blues and the darker currents of bluegrass, filled with jangling guitar riffs and strangulated vocals. Not to all tastes, but a brilliant calling card from Lockwood.
Frank London: “Hazanos” (Tzadik). Since I acquired this, a week hasn’t passed in which I haven’t listened to it at least a couple of times. That is, to say the least, not usual for me, but it tells you how much I love this record.
Working with a brilliant rhythm section (David Chevan on bass, Anthony Coleman on keyboards, Gerald Cleaver on drums), several other superb musicians and several brilliant voices — most notably cantors Jack Mendelson and Simon Spiro — London has crafted the single-most compelling fusion of jazz and Jewish traditional liturgical music that I have heard to date. This is simply one of the best records I have heard in 10 years. Go buy it right now. Period.
Roy Nathanson: “Sotto Voce” (AUM Fidelity). From the start, this is clearly a very different Nathanson album, with human beatbox Napoleon Maddox supplying the rhythms and Nathanson coming up with a lot of the words. The result is a very satisfying, frequently funny and always witty jazz excursion, anchored by Nathanson’s superlative sax playing and fellow Jazz Passenger Curtis Fowlkes offering his usual trombone ingenuity.
The album runs the gamut from a vaguely satirical but surprisingly deeply felt “Sunrise Sunset” to a funk combustible “Sunny.” And all five band members contribute nicely judged vocals.