This is the first page of reviews of Jewish music from across the world, including numerous klezmer records. I'm not a huge Jewish music maven or anything, but along with all the other "world music" albums I was listening to, a bunch of these albums started floating my way... So I figured, what the heck, let's review these as well... So, what little I know on the topic, I am sharing with you now...
Ahava Raba "Kete Kuf" (Tzadik, 1999)
This German-based quintet brings to life the wildly inventive, somewhat kooky compositions of violinist and lead singer Simon Jakob Drees. With staccato and pizzicato playing and tightly-arranged, circuslike pieces, the group drawns on a myriad of musical influences, inspired by Eastern travels Drees undertook in the early 1990s, going as far afield as Tuva, Uzbekistan and Russia... Indeed, a bit a Tuvan throat singing graces a tune or two, amid Brechtian darkness and clattersome klez-motifs. It's a pretty cool album! Recommended, especially for folks who enjoy the Willem Breuker Collective and other nutty, theatrical, postmodernist groups like that...
Brave Old World "Klezmer Music" (Rounder/Flying Fish, 1992)
Brave Old World "Beyond The Pale" (Rounder, 1994)
Hmm. Didn't do much for me... the opening numbers are a bit glum, and when they play fast, I don't feel all that moved by it. It's good music and they are clearly virtuosi, but the production seems a little static, perhaps? Klezmer aficionados will find plenty to dig into on here, but as an outside observer, I was nonplussed.
Brave Old World "Brave Old World" (Global Village, 1995)
Brave Old World "Blood Oranges" (Red House, 1999)
Brave Old World "Bless The Fire" (Pinnorekk Musikverlag, 2003)
Brave Old World "Dus Gezang Fin Geto Lodzh/Song Of The Lodz Ghetto" (Winter And Winter, 2005)
Paul Brody's Sadawi "Kabbalah Dream" (Tzadik, 2002)
Avant-jazz klezmer with squonky horns, crunchy electric guitar and jazzy drumming; this ain't your Grandma's wedding music that's for sure, but it is a very inventive revisiting of the style, which moves from gleefully irritating genuinely joyful, recapturing some of klezmer's original ecstatic essence ... It's not the kind of thing you'd have on when company is over, but it is a striking, often challenging record.
Ceilizemer "Shalom Ireland" (Self-Released, 2003)
This mix of Celtic and klezmer doesn't always work, but it's mostly pretty nice. The main problem is that it teeters between styles more than it mixes them together... But still, it's a nice, playful acoustic outing from these adventuresome Northern Californian pickers...
Comedian Harmonists "The Comedian Harmonists" (Ryko-Hannibal, 1998)
The Harmonists were a wonderful vocal group from Weimar-era Germany, which combined swing vocals with Germanic leider traditions... In essence, they were an a capella jazz group -- Berlin's answer to the Mills Brothers (whose style and technique they liberally borrowed from, including the use of voices to mimick instruments...) Wildly popular in Continental Europe, the Harmonists toured widely and recorded dozens of original songs and tasty cover tunes, many of which are collected on this well-paced single CD collection. Their career was cut short, however by the Nazi regime that rose to power in the early 1930s: half the band was Jewish, and when the non-Jewish members refused to perform without them, the group was forced to disband. Their story is ably presented in the feature film, Harmonists, which also features some outstanding recreations of the group's musical style.
Comedy Harmonists "Auf Wiederseh'n" (ASV Living Era, 1997)
The band's name is translated differently, but the music is the same. This is also a great sampling of their work... Anything on the British ASV label is bound to have good sound and even better taste.
Adrienne Cooper & Zalmen Mlotek "Ghetto Tango: Wartime Yiddish Theater" (Traditional Crossroads, 2000)
In the 1930s and '40s, after the Germans had rounded up the Polish Jewry -- first into the ghetto and then into the camps -- small groups of Yiddish-language performers gathered together to write and perform cabaret acts and plays, staging shows that both kept hope in their hearts and expressed the anger, defiance and pessimism of a race that was living with its neck in an executioner's noose. It's amazing that any of these songs survive -- many were handed down verbally, memorized and written down after the war; others were anthems sung by the Jewish partisans who fought guerilla battles in the Polish forests. This record collects many of the most biting and tragic of these songs, gathered by pianist Zalmen Mlotek and singer Adrienne Cooper, who have worked to archive and reinterpret the Yiddish wartime legacy. The album closely follows their stage show, capturing the balance between Cooper's brassy, sardonic cabaret singing and Mlotek's soulful arrangements and his own, more reflective vocal style. What's probably most striking is how the bitter cynicism of the Polish ghetto so often translated into scorn and outright anger for their captor's, laying waste once again to the image of a meek, passive Jewry. In "The Song Of The Nazi Soldier's Wife", the singer feigns envy at all the fine things a plundering German sends home to his starstruck hausfrau, yet the singer's teeth are bared in undisguised glee at the thought of this same soldier meeting a cold and gruesome death on the Russian Front. Other songs take a more inspirational tone but the performances, which owe a large and obvious dept to Bertolt Brecht's work, are seldom maudlin or contrived. A remarkable album, and highly recommended for any of us with friends or family who may still be Holocaust gloom junkies.
The Cracow Klezmer Band "De Profundis" (Tzadik, 2000)
A rich and resonant album from a small Polish quartet that makes quite a large sound, and explores a wide dynamic range... There's a softness and sensitivity to aural texture that's somewhat unusual for the klezmer style, as well as an ebb and flow to the tempo that helps undercut the repetitive nature of the music. You may also detect a strong whiff of Argentine tango in their playing, which feels entirely natural and appropriate... Some songs are solemn, others are wild... Definitely recommended.
Eliyahu & The Quadim Ensemble "Eastern Wind" (Embarka, 2009)
(Produced by Eliyahu Sills)
A wide-ranging tour of various Middle-Eastern and Asian musical styles, spanning Armenian, Jewish, Turkish and Arabic traditions, much of it either religious material, or based on romantic poetry. Oudist Eliyahu Sills leads this expansive small ensemble from the San Francisco Bay Area, playing several different instruments as well as singing in an impassioned, almost cantorial voice. This performances are lively and heartfelt, a deep exploration into a rich musical heritage.
Finjan Klezmer Ensemble "Crossing Selkirk Avenue" (Red House, 1993)
A great set of lively, original-sounding klezmer from this swingin' Canadian combo. Finjan skillfully mixes klezmer with other musical styles -- Eastern European dance music, polkas, bluegrass -- and adds unusual instrumentatation that makes them sound markedly different from most klez groups. I enjoyed the feel of the band, as well as Shayla Fink's vocals, which were very friendly and direct. Recommended!
Finjan Klezmer Ensemble "Dancing On Water" (Rounder, 2000)
More groovy stuff from Finjan, although a few of the songs -- particularly the faster, more traditional-sounding klezmer tunes -- sound like the same old, same old. Fortunately, they don't play many of those, and the album is mostly as creative and fresh-sounding as their previous album. On the slower, elegiac pieces, though, they excel and can bring a shiver to your spine. High-level musical competence, with some unusual musical choices that still make them stand from many of their peers.
Freilachmakers Klezmer String Band "The Flower Of Berezin" (Self-Released, 1998)
A nice acoustic set from this Sacramento-area, Northern California band... There's an evident (and welcome) bluegrass influence, but not so much that it gets in the way of the music, just sort of like how Andy Statman fuses the two styles. Includes several traditional klezmer tunes, as well as newer original compositions... Nice!
Freilachmakers Klezmer String Band "And I In The Uttermost West" (Self-Released, 2004)
Freilachmakers Klezmer String Band "Klezmer At The Confluence" (Self-Released, 2010)
Hasidic New Wave "Jews And The Abstract Truth" (Knitting Factory, 1997)
Angular, difficult, somewhat cerebral free/fusion jazz explorations of familiar Jewish themes. This all-instrumental album centers on Frank London (trumpet) and tenor saxophonist Greg Wall, but also has a slew of talented players, including guitarists David Fiuczynski and Gary Lucas, Anthony Coleman on organ and clarinetist Ben Goldberg, slumming it from the West Coast. It's too Miles Davis-y for me, but jazz fans may find this fascinating.
Hasidic New Wave "Kabology" (Knitting Factory, 1999)
A smaller ensemble and heavier sound mark this live performance, in which the jazz-fusion elements are front and center, with a loose, funky feel worthy of Miles Davis and all those kooky cats back in the '70s. London, Wall and Fiuczynski again form the core of this combo -- and jazz-oriented listeners may find it a fairly strong set.
A Hawk And A Hacksaw "Darkness At Noon" (Leaf, 2005)
An odd, engaging, avant-klezprov album from indie-rocker Jeremy Barnes (a veteran of bands such as Neutral Milk Hotel and Bablicon)... Although the record is mostly Barnes's work, he has collaborators from the avant-jazz, rock and klezmer community on board, and while the album has obvious klezmer roots, it stretches into Arabic and Balkan motifs, as well as a sheen of manic noisepop as well... The eclectic, frantic feel of some of the Neutral Milk Hotel albums is funnelled here into a tighter form, and while this record pushes the boundaries of the klezmer genre, it is also surprisingly strong compositional aspects, while simultaneously feeling freer and less staid than much of the contemporary klezmer that it branches off from... There's also a sense of fun and abandon, as well as a moody, whimsical side that's kind of cool as well. If you like the newer, experimental klezmer of groups such as Hasidic New Wave, but find their orientation towards the free jazz of Ornette Coleman et al., to be a bit taxing, this multi-layered, sometimes spacy sonic odessey might be more to your liking. Definitely worth checking out!
Ofra Haza "Yemenite Songs" (Warner Brothers, 1987)
I remember this album making a huge impact at the college station I worked at in the 1980s... It was a landmark "work music" album, melding modern dance music with traditional, Arabic-influenced Yemeni-Jewish melodies... and, above all, such beautiful, beautiful vocals by the late Ms. Haza. The "Yemenite" tag was slightly misleading: Haza was actually an Israeli pop singer who decided to go the "ethnic" route and broaden her audience to beyond the Middle Eastern audience. A couple of years after this came out, I managed to track down one of her earlier albums, eagerly brought it home and was much chagrined to find out how wimpy an artist Ofra Haza originally was... It sounded like a cheap Olivia Newton-John imitation. No matter, though: this disc is a gem, thoroughly haunting and evocative, and highly recommended.
Ofra Haza "Shaday" (Warner Brothers, 1988)
Ofra Haza "Kirya" (Shanachie, 1992)
Having established herself in the minds of world-music fans as a tradition-oriented Middle Eastern artist, Haza slips back into a more "pop" mode, mixing jazz, hip-hop and soft-pop motifs in, along with the Arabic-influenced vocals and instruments. Her voice is still pretty nice, but the production, courtesy of Don Was, is a bit glossy for me. Still, this album is better than some of her others, where she was trying to ride the world-beat techno-dance wave she'd helped pioneer. Worth checking out, though I didn't think it was a keeper.
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