Madonna is probably the world’s most famous quasi-Jewish musician. Next time she goes on tour, she might consider bringing along some of the following artists, thus allowing her star to cast some rays of light on them and to do for contemporary Jewish music what she’s done for her friends from The Kabbalah Centre.
There’s perhaps no figure in modern Jewish music as influential and beloved as the late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. This presents his singer-songwriter daughter, NESHAMA CARLEBACH, with a stark choice: to embrace his legacy or to shun it. Rather than turn her back on her musical inheritance. Neshama has chosen to don her father’s mantle and personalize it with her own twist. Her latest album, “Journey” (Sameach Music), features jazzy, folk-pop versions of 11 of Reb Shlomo’s melodies — most of which are built around Hebrew liturgy — plus two original songs by Carle- bach and by the album’s producer/keyboardist, David Morgan.
In Neshama’s hands, “Adon Olam” is propelled by a soulful, Bruce Hornsby-like groove, and “Asher Bara” dances to a salsa beat. Neshama boasts a rich alto, and the instrumental accompaniment, which includes bass, guitar, drums and saxophone, is always tasteful and supportive. As popular as her father was, his music rarely ventured beyond the bounds of the Jewish community. On “Journey,” without sacrificing any of his music’s integrity or authenticity, Carlebach has found a way to make it appeal to audiences potentially far greater than those her father ever dreamed of reaching.
REBECCA TEPLOW shares an approach similar to Neshama Carlebach’s on her self-released album, “Prayers,” also produced by Morgan. Less folky than Carlebach, however, Teplow boasts the voice of a pop diva with a hint of Barbra Streisand, well suited to her dramatic, cello-flecked, pop-rock arrangements of psalms and passages from Jewish wisdom literature.
Intentionally or not, the spirit of Shlomo Carlebach hovers over SIMCHA KANTER’s “Wellsprings” (IgraRama), a collection of traditional Hasidic songs and nigunim, or wordless melodies, put down in rootsy, catchy, contemporary folk-rock arrangements featuring bass, guitar and drums, with occasional snatches of saxophone, trumpet and viola dancing with Kanter’s insinuating, spiritual vocals.
GOLEM is one of the hottest young groups on the vibrant Yiddish/klezmer scene. Fronted by the dynamic, pixyish and brilliant Annette Ezekiel — she sings, she dances, she plays accordion, and she speaks five languages and understands several others — Golem specializes in reviving obscure chestnuts of the Eastern European repertoire and breathing new life into old favorites. The group’s CD, “Homesick Songs” (Aeronaut), showcases its brassy, boisterous approach on songs of longing for the shtetls and towns of the Old World — places like “Odessa,” “Bialystok,” “Belz” and, yes, “Rumenye,” which Ezekiel’s co-vocalist, Aaron Diskin, takes over the top in a theatrical version that would have made Second Avenue Clown Prince Aaron Lebedeff proud.
REBECCA KAPLAN AND PETE RUSHEFSKY favor an Old World sound on their new recording, “On the Paths: Yiddish Songs with Tsimbl” (Yiddishland). Most of the selections feature Kaplan singing old Yiddish folk songs, like “Shlof, Mayn Kind” and “Tayerer Rebenyu” with gossamer accompaniment by Rushefsky on tsimbl, the Jewish answer to the hammered dulcimer.
A few of the world’s top klezmer bands have released albums recently that, while not attempting to push the genre as far forward as in past efforts, will have a strong appeal to longtime fans while undoubtedly garnering new listeners. For the last year or so, THE KLEZMATICShave been exploring the unique Jewish legacy of that most American of folksingers, Woody Guthrie. Through his marriage to Martha Graham dancer Marjorie Mazia, whose mother was famed Yiddish poet and songwriter Aliza Greenblatt, Guthrie was exposed to Jewish culture and politics, both of which made their way into some lyrics that until now had been mostly left unexplored. “Woody Guthrie’s Happy Joyous Hanuka” (Klezmatics Records) by the Klezmatics brings these songs to life in playful renditions that nod to country and bluegrass as much as Old Country music.
On “Bless the Fire” (Pinorrekk Records), acoustic quartet BRAVE OLD WORLD refines its chamber-klezmer approach in a blend of traditional and new compositions. The live album highlights the musicians’ telepathic interplay on improvisational numbers like the Gypsy-flavored “Marmarosh,” and the group’s more introspective, atmospheric qualities are showcased on compositions such as “Der mentsh trakht un lakht,” which marries contemporary compositional strategies with a Hasidic waltz and Itzik Manger’s poetry. For Brave Old World, melodies aren’t so much composed as they are evolved. Modern klezmer doesn’t get any more stately or beautiful than this.
Those who prefer klezmer in a more neo-traditional vein will enjoy the self-titled debut CD on Golden Horn Records from VERETSKI PASS, an all-star klezmer trio featuring violinist Cookie Segelstein, tsimblist/accordionist Joshua Horowitz and bassist Stuart Brotman of Brave Old World. Veretski Pass favors an “early music” approach, playing its repertoire of Carpathian-Jewish melodies on 19th-century instruments, albeit with a distinctive 21st-century talent. The 32-page booklet includes mini-essays by each player and mouthwatering recipes from Segelstein’s family cookbook.
SUKKE is a new, tradition-minded European trio that brings together three of that region’s best-known klezmer musicians: clarinetist Merlin Shepherd from England, accordionist Sanne Moricke from Holland and German bassist Heiko Lehmann. The only thing unimaginative about the group’s debut CD, “Introducing Sukke” (World Music Network), is its title; otherwise, the playing on Old and New World numbers — several of which feature lyrics by the famed Canadian Yiddishist Michael Wex — is world class.
On the cutting edge of new Jewish music are recent recordings by Steven Bernstein, Paul Brody, Aaron Alexander and Basya Schechter, all on John Zorn’s Tzadik label. On “Diaspora Hollywood,” STEVEN BERNSTEIN has realized a cool fusion of the hot, Gulf-influenced jazz featured on his earlier album, “Diaspora Soul,” and the highly improvisatory and soulful music from “Diaspora Blues” that drew on the cantorial music of the late, near-mystical Moshe Koussevitzky for inspiration. On the original compositions and rewrites of classic melodies like “Sim Shalom” and “Hevenu Shalom Aleichem” that constitute “Diaspora Hollywood,” Bernstein and bandmates lay down a cinematic, Jewish-inflected noir jazz: “Meyer Lansky” could be the soundtrack to David Lynch’s next movie, and the band’s funky breakdown of “Eliyahu Hanavi” is ready made for a chase sequence in the next James Bond film.
It seems hard to believe, but the klezmer revival has been going on long enough for contemporary musicians to begin reinterpreting each other’s works. At least that’s the theory behind “Beyond Babylon,” on which trumpeter Paul Brody’s group, SADAWI, revisits four works by klezmer composers such as Frank London, David Krakauer, Glenn Dickson and Ben Goldberg, in addition to tackling five original pieces. Brody’s klezmer reconstructions use nails and glue borrowed from jazz, rock, funk, dub and the downtown avant-garde, making for some surprisingly compelling musical juxtapositions.
AARON ALEXANDER’s “Midrash Mish Mosh” promises what the title delivers. It’s a wild affair led by the drummer/composer Alexander, featuring his bandmates from Hasidic New Wave plus others from the klezmer and downtown scenes, including clarinetist Merlin Shepherd from Sukke and trombonist Curtis Hasselbring from Golem. Alexander’s recording boasts a wide palette, a broad, pan-cultural reach connecting thrash-punk to Hasidic dance, and funny, evocative song titles, including “Kleyzmish Moshpit,” “Yiddishe Kop,” and “Khosidl for the Mixed Marriage.”
BASYA SCHECHTER, best known as frontwoman of pan-Jewish vocal group Pharaoh’s Daughter, throws her babushka into the avant-garde ring with her own all-instrumental, experimental album, “Queen’s Dominion.” Anyone who enjoys the jamming that goes on at a Pharaoh’s Daughter concert will appreciate Schechter’s stretched-out, haunting instrumental melodies, featuring her Middle Eastern-flavored oud playing accompanied by other musicians on santur, violin, cello, percussion, recorders and other instruments.
Seth Rogovoy is author of “The Essential Klezmer: A Music Lover’s Guide to Jewish Roots and Soul Music…” (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2000), and editor-in-chief of Berkshire Living Magazine.