The month of Elul, that time of introspection and self-examination that precedes the High Holy Days, by its very nature should move us toward a peak of spiritual intensity that washes into the Days of Awe. No surprise, then, that the music of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is among the most powerful, the most emotional, that Jewish liturgical composition has to offer. Inevitably, recordings of this music can barely begin to capture the heightened psychological states to which the prayers and songs aspire. But there are always a few artists who can reach beyond themselves, and, as Beethoven does in the late string quartets, shatter the boundaries of form and instrumentation.
The records reviewed here are not all (or even mostly) High Holy Days music, but each of them is focused on their spiritual content as much as on the music itself. As a result, they seem an unusually apt group for this time of year.
Adler, Chaim: “Kol Nidre” (Noam Productions). Cantor Adler is another in a growing line of chazzanim who are trying to revive classical chazzanot, harkening back to the Golden Age cantorate of Rosenblatt, Sirota, Chagy and those other giants of Jewish liturgical singing. Like his models, he deals in a certain over-the-top emotionalism, the kind of excess that is not inappropriate to the High Holy Days traditional music that this album features. He has a slightly nasal tone, most evident on melismatic phrases at the top of his range, but a sure musicality that makes his best moments on this record quite effective. The choral and instrumental arrangements are also exercises in excess; on a percussive, heavily rhythmic piece like “V’af Hu,” this approach works splendidly, but on some of the more rhapsodic offerings it is distinctly counterproductive.
Alia Musica: “El Canto Espiritual Judeoespanol” (Iberica). This is a reissue of a 1998 album by this formidable early music ensemble. Alia Musica, founded by Miguel Sanchez over 20 years ago, has specialized in the Judeo-Spanish repertoire of the Middle Ages, and its mastery of this material, particularly the haunting polyphonic vocal settings of liturgy like “Avinu Malkeinu,” the opening selection on this CD, is considerable. If you are one of those people who succumbed to the chant mania of a few years ago but felt guilty listening to all those songs about Jesus, this is definitely an album to assuage your conscience. More important, it is very good music, superbly performed.
Available from Hatikvah Music at http://www.hatikvahmusic.com or phone (323) 655-7083.
Az’amrah: “Peaceful Moon” (self-distributed). Pleasant soft-rock and pop settings of material ranging from “L’cha Dodi” to “Eishes Chayil,” in what the liner notes hopefully describe as a song cycle “telling the story of mankind,” which is a fairly ambitious concept. In reality, the album falls somewhere between a true song cycle and a series of thematically related but otherwise distinct tunes. A bit over-produced (and I hope never to hear another synthesizer on an album of Jewish music again), but professional and sincere, if a trifle anodyne.
Available at http://www.azamrah.com.
Katchko-Gray, Cantor Deborah: “Jewish Soul: A Collection” (Self-distributed). Katchko-Gray is a fourth-generation cantor and the founder of the Women’s Cantorial Network, and she possesses a lilting soprano voice and a poise you can almost hear. This set is clearly designed to show off her range, moving from a terrific Yemenite “Et Dodim” to a Yiddish chestnut like “Mayn Rue Plats” and a faux-country song, “Peel One More Potato.” There are some very strong selections here, particularly a live duet with Benjie-Ellen Schiller on “Shiru Shir Chadash” and her version of Hashkiveinu composed by Adolph Katchko.
Available at http://www.oysongs.com.
Merkavah: “When Will the Master Come?” (JMG). One would think that merging the ecstatic prayer tradition of Chasidism with the all-out physicality of rock ‘n’ roll would be a logical and straightforward transaction. The problem is, as this album shows vividly, that the musical imperatives of nigunim and rock are diametrically opposed. At least, that would seem to be the case here. Yerachamiel Altizio is a baal teshuvah with an extensive musical education and a lifelong attachment to the jam-band scene and, if this set took its musical cues from the laid-back vibe of Phish et al., this record might work. Altizio, on guitars and keyboards, and his bandmates, drummer Rich Bloom and reed player Mike Fuerstein, certainly have the chops to play this music. Indeed, the virtuosity on display here is impressive. But the tunes quickly begin to sound alike and the disconnect between the driving four of a rock beat and the Eastern European intricacies of the Chasidic nigun intrudes to ill effect. These guys are too good to ignore, but I hope they rethink their approach before they go into the studio again.
Rockin’ Himmelman: Prophetic and Eclectic
Peter Himmelman’s new CD, “The Pigeons Couldn’t Sleep” (Himmasongs), is an interesting reminder of how much American popular music owes to the African American tradition. Of course, Himmelman’s cryptic but unmistakably spiritual lyrics, with their hefty cargo of self-evaluation, are squarely in the Jewish prophetic tradition as it has been extended into the New World by writers and composers as disparate as Philip Roth, Lenny Bruce and Bob Dylan (Himmelman’s father-in-law, a connection that both are probably tired of hearing about). But musically, this satisfying set of brawny, anthemic rockers ranges from funkified 12-bar blues (the title cut) to reggae-inflected hard rock (“Winning Team”), to lacerating guitar-driven lurch (“A Dog Can Drink Stagnant Water”). There are strange echoes of Randy Newman in some of Himmelman’s vocals, and some slide guitar that recalls Duane Allman, but the end result is Himmelman, pure and simple. Most of the songs here are terse and punchy, with sudden, unexpected flashes of a lyricism that Himmelman keeps concealed most of the time. You have to love a guy who can use a word like “exhalations” in a song lyric (and properly, too), then follow it with a coruscating guitar solo. 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.”
The CD is accompanied by a DVD of an hourlong documentary by Keith Wolf, “Rock God,” which explores Himmelman’s career as recounted in his own words. He displays a surprisingly warm sense of humor, much of it self-deprecating. It will come as no surprise to anyone who has listened to his lyrics to find that Himmelman is entering middle age with a certain resigned unease, balancing his ardent desire to continue following his dreams with the necessities that come from having a wife and four children. Much of the charm of Wolf’s film comes from the devices that Himmelman uses to keep the dream alive through the excruciatingly long grind of the road, ranging from slipping into a manic alter ego, Lance Bellvue, to bringing kids up on stage to “experience the awesome power of rock.” The result is honest and earnest, funny and appealing and a worthy adjunct to the new album.