Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Lena and Nina Go To Israel

One truth that became even truer on our collecting sprees: the scope of American Popular Music is unimaginable without the creative commingling of Black and Jewish musicians. The evidence is everywhere, from headline stories like Tin Pan Alley's Jewish composers creating pop standards out of African-American blues and spirituals and African-American jazz greats paying them back by turning those standards into jazz anthems, to lesser known tales of The Temptations and Cannonball Adderley doing Fiddler on the Roof tunes, Slim Galliard and Cab Calloway rocking songs in Yiddish about bagels, matzoh balls, and tailors, and Herbie Hancock sitting in on a recording of a Jewish prayer service. Yet as so many of the LPs we gathered seemed to suggest, Black women artists played a key role in all these exchanges. We stumbled on Eartha Kitt doing "Sholem" and "Roumania, Roumania" (see our earlier post) and Billie Holiday doing "My Yiddishe Momme" and Ethel Waters doing "Eli, Eli" and Alberta Hunter taking a trip to Israel and coming back to talk about it on the Dick Cavett show in 1979 where she proudly sings the old Alexander Olshanetsky tune "Ich Hob Dich Tsufil Lieb." She does it all in Yiddish instead of in its better known English version as "I Love You Much Too Much."

When Lena Horne-- a veteran of plenty Hadassah benefits in the States-- went to Israel in 1952, she sang some Israeli tunes she had learned phonetically over the years. Israel was in the midst of independence fever and Horne was taken by what she called "history-in-the-making in a brand-new country." She visited kibbutzes and a camp for Yemenite children, "terribly oppressed people of color, people just emerging from the kind of bondage Negroes have been struggling so long to emerge from." Nearly a decade later, in the midst of U.S. civil rights upheavals and inspired by the folk protest scene, Horne went through a career transformation and decided she needed to start singing political songs. Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg wrote her "Silent Spring" (based on Rachel Carson's influential book on environmental destruction) and Broadway vets Adolph Green, Betty Comden, and Jules Styne wrote her "Now!," an incisive rant against civil rights abuses that Styne cpmposed, believe it or not, to the cheery tune of "Hava Nagilah." Horne performed them both at a SNCC rally at Carnegie Hall. Then as film scholar Michael Renov thankfully revealed to us-- in 1965, "Now!" became the soundtrack to a pioneering experimental documentary about the civil rights movement by Cuban filmmaker Santiago Alvarez. Must be seen and heard to be believed.

Nina Simone played Israel in the 70s and was shocked to find that when her El Al fight landed at the Tel Aviv airport, there were throngs waiting to see her. "They had been waiting for me to come for ten years," she wrote in her autobiography. Simone left Israel in 1979 and claimed that her visit put her back in touch with herself and with God and put her career back on track. She should have seen it coming-- Nina already had Israel on her mind in the 60s. She sang the circle-dancing ode to the Land of Milk and Honey, "Eretz Zavat Chalav," when she played Carnegie Hall in 1963. You can hear it on her incredible live LP Folksy Nina, or just be awed by this:

Friday, October 24, 2008

I'd rather be a sparrow than a snail...

Israel and Folk Music have always gone together like Mr. Roarke and Tattoo. Partially because the genre's love of flowery lyrics gave Israeli poets permission to let themselves loose ideologically. And partially because like most things, electric guitars were in scarce supply in the nascent state, so the stripped-down style was the perfect sound for the day. A rich and varied folk industry was the result. Acts like Ron and Nama, The Lirons, and the Ofarim unleashed fine vinyl in the sixties and seventies. One of the combos we have come to love through our collecting is The Paravim (The Suburbs) who were known as Israel's Simon and Garfunkel. Not only did they they physically resemble the American duo and translate their material into Hebrew, they even split up though musical differences were not this cause on this occasion. One of them became Ultra-Orthodox. Here we present two tracks from their 1972 release, The Paravim Sing Simon and Garfunkel (In Hebrew.) The first is their version of America, a track about clinging onto big dreams amidst bruising realities, which was no doubt quite fitting in 1970s Israel. The second is a rollicking rendition of El Condor Pasa, the traditional folk tune plundered from the Andes with new lyrics applied Graceland style, resounded as an Israeli folk song.
Click to listen here:

El Condor Pasa.

Thanks to Ari Kelman for sending in this beauty.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Found!!! Fred Katz: The Zen of Fred

To get to Fred Katz, you must find your way through the manicured suburban back-streets of Fullerton, then cross a Zen garden (complete with wooden bridge over a sea of pebbles), then walk over a SHALOM doormat. Once you find him, it will be hard to stay away. We've spent many an afternoon in Katz's living room-- full of his old LPs, family photos, and collection of books on magic and Kabbalah-- and his converted studio garage, a magical space itself where Katz's cello takes center stage alongside reel-to-reel decks and piles of sheet music.

We've posted the basics on Katz's remarkable career before but suffice it to say there is nobody quite like him: the first cellist in jazz, an emeritus professor of anthropology, a composer for Roger Corman films, and an arranger for Lena Horne, Carmen McRae, Sidney Poitier, Ken Nordine, and Harpo Marx. That's not to mention his years on cello pioneering West Coast jazz with the Chico Hamilton Quintet and his numerous solo albums, from Soul-O-Cello to Fred Katz and His Jammers (where he played cello on Malibu Beach in his pajamas)...
...to Folk Songs For Far Out Folk, his landmark 1959 jazz orchestration of American, Hebrew, and African folk songs. We re-issued Folk Songs last year (more on that here) and are happy to say that it helped re-introduce Katz's incredible story to new audiences.

Jon Kalish's visit to Katz's home for NPR was one of our favorites and you can listen here.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Our Billboard Top Five

Here are five tracks which are barely off our gramophones. Something for everyone to listen and fall in love with below.

Fiddler on the Roof by Motown's favorites, The Temptations

Belz by our hero, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass

Orthodox, Conservative, or Reformed, the only song of lust to involve religious denominations by Bernie Knee

The infectious Dunkin' Bagel by the ever innovative Slim Galliard

The deliciously named, Dance of the Semites, by the sexiest man in the world, Herbie Mann

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Hedva and David: Big In Japan?

We just received this work of beauty from Samuel Shep in Cleveland and after unpacking it and giving it a spin, are intrigued. The album is a thumping funk cocktail. Taste it yourself with Side two's kick off adrenalin shot, Illusions. And the liner notes tell a cryptic and unbelievable tale of Hedva, a Yemenite Israeli who met David in the Israeli army and went on to represent Israel in an "International Popular Song Contest" which they won with a rendition of the Hebrew song Naomi. The song went on to become Nippon's number one, going gold and selling over a million records. We would love the story to be true, but it is undercut a little by the album itself. Make no mistake. Each track is a roller coaster that plays with your emotions, but it is self-produced and the liner notes are written on a type writer. But no sooner were we tempted to dismiss the whole story as some publicists creative license, we found this on the You Tube. Hedva and David singing Naomi in Japanese, and then the below. Two of the cream of Japanese crop performing their version of the track on Japanese television as if the song is a national treasure... If anyone knows where Hedva and Ron are now... we would LOVE to learn more...

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Found! Moog Pioneer Gershon Kingsley!!!

If you grew up loving Kraftwerk like we did, then you probably own a copy of The In Sound From Way Out, the first ever electronica album, recorded by the Moog pioneering duo, Perrey and Kingsley in 1966. After breaking up, Jean Jaques Perrey kept noodling away on his Moog, but Gershon Kingsley went on to experiment with the Fairlight and the Synclavier and released the anthem of many of our youths, the infectious 1972 dance hit, Popcorn,which is still faintly audible across the whole of Italy and huge swaths of Germany. The tune has been covered over 100 times by everyone from DJ Mystik to Herb Alpert to Ben Folds... (to listen to these golden interpretations and more click here) Imagine our delight then when these two albums were mailed to us by a reader from Chicago... Kingsley's lesser known attempts to fuse the machine and the divine -- Shabbat for Today... recordings made between 1968 and 1974 which utilize creativity, the Moog, and a few choice Proverbs to create meditations on identity and freedom in the form of a gospel-driven rock opera for the Sabbath. The album is as infectious as it is intelligent. It blew our minds on first listen. And then we were tipped off that Gershon was alive and well and living in Midtown Manhattan. We dialed him up, as nervous as if we were calling Don Johnson, Adam And or any other icon from our youth, and Gersh invited us over. We sped over to his beautiful home/recording studio, in which he keeps enough technology to launch a Sputnik. Gersh's biography spans pre-Holocaust Euope, pre-State Palestine, California and New York and his career arc is a parable of the modern Jewish experience. But most of all, he rocked us with his continued creativity, recording daily with a slew of young collaborators, and his incessant efforts to analyze our fragile psyches with his Jungian skills. You can glimpse Gershon's studio here and get a taste of the Shabbat for Today sound with his synth-funk version of U'Shoreem with chug-along drumming reminiscent of a young Stewart Copeland.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Make this year, a Mathis Yom Kippur...

Eddie: When you're making out, who do you prefer? Sinatra or Mathis?
Boogie: I like Presley
-- Diner, Barry Levinson, 1982

The Jewish Day of Atonement -- Yom Kippur -- has always been one of our favorite holidays and not just because we have more to repent for than the average gent. Our unfettered delight comes from our ownership of this seven inch masterpiece by "Mr. When A Child Is Born" Johnny Mathis himself, who recorded the Kol Nidre melody
—the nullification of personal promises that cannot be fulfilled—on his 1958 LP, Good Night, Dear Lord. On the album itself, Mathis' versions of Eli Eli and Where Can I Go? nestled alongside renditions of Ave Maria and Sweet Rosary but even more staggering than the tracks cropping up on an album sung by the universally acclaimed King of Romance, is that Mathis devoted the time to mastering Aramaic, Hebrew and Yiddish so he could record them fluently. Savor the track and appreciate the awe of the liturgical melody and Mathis' velvet virtuosity. And if you find it sub-consciously putting you in the mood for romance as opposed to reverential atonement, click here and calm yourself down.

We wish all of readers happiness and health for the year ahead. In the Hebrew calendar this is 5769... the end of the Sixties era... so rock on.