Feel Good Jewish Music
This release marks the second time mandolin maven David Grisman and clarinetist extraordinaire Andy Statman have joined together to make an album of joyous Jewish music. The first one, Songs of Our Fathers was released more than ten years ago to much acclaim. The two musicians are said to have become more observant Jews over the past decade. They are photographed in traditional Jewish garb on the CD cover, complete with yarmulkes and grey beards.
These two maestros also have performed with one another on non-Jewish, mostly American folk tunes many times. They play together pleasantly and don’t push each other. That’s a positive attribute in many ways. This gives their collaborations an amicable feeling that comes when two old friends get together and jam. However, there’s something too comfortable here. This is Chasidic music that’s meant to evoke the mystical spiritualism of the human connections to God. This element seems missing. Instead, we are left with the feel good music found at endless folk festivals. There is nothing distinctively religious here except for the melodies. The liner notes suggest that the artists aim for something higher, but unfortunately they don’t reach it.
Maybe it’s too much to ask musicians to help us see God, but many of us have in the different artistries of people as diverse as Jimi Hendrix, John McLaughlin and, dare I say it—even James Taylor (check out One Man Dog). Grisman’s old bluegrass partner Jerry Garcia made a career of bringing people to their personal nirvanas, and I am sure every reader here can think of their own private examples from Tupac to Opeth to Sugartown. New Shabbos Waltz has all the trappings of a holy album. Much of the source material was written by rabbis, including two by the modern San Francisco master from the House of Love and Prayer, Shlomo Carlebach. The selections include songs known well by even moderately practicing Conservative Jews, as well as unknown rare gems with poignant Hebrew themes about the importance of observing the Sabbath and the magnificence of the city of Jerusalem.
The aforementioned Carlebach was far from an accomplished musician, but he could increase the spirituality of a room through his sheer joy. These guys could play rings around him, but don’t seem able to raise their own spirits—not to mention those of the listeners. The songs are well played—not a note out of place—but so what? For example, the last track is the one with the heaviest emotional baggage. Rabbi Fastag composed the melody to “Ani Ma’Amin” (“I Believe”) while traveling on a cattle car headed to the Treblinka death camp. The song became a hopeful anthem in the concentration camps of Jewish victory against all odds. Grisman and Statman turn it into a dirge. They evoke the somberness of the camps rather than the glory of faith, and somehow make the tune a safe, middlebrow reflection of suffering. Oy!
The other material is more benign. These include familiar tunes like “Avinu Malkenu” (“Our Father, Our King”), which is sung in synagogue every Sabbath, and “Yerusalayim Shel Zahav” (“Jerusalem of Gold”), a popular hit after the Six Day War in 1967 that replaced the theme from the movie Exodus as the compulsory Jewish soundtrack to suburban Bar and Bat Mitzvah party celebrations held at the house. The more exotic fare, such as the early twentieth century piece “Shabbos HaYom LaShem” (“The Sabbath, God’s Day”) and the more recent composition “Ya’Aleh” (“May Our Supplication Ascend”), sound gentle and pleasing when played on mandolin and clarinet.
This music would be perfect to put on the stereo when the family comes to visit, as a Jewish counterbalance to all that goyishe Christmas music that pervades the airwaves from the end of Halloween to New Year’s Day. Nobody’s bubbe will be upset. It’s nice wallpaper. Statman really is a wonderful clarinetist—and mandolin player. He joins Grisman on some skillfully played duets. Because there are no words, the music is de-politicized, taking it out of the realm of controversy—unlike Tupac or Opeth or Sugarland, which someone is bound to complain about. This may have the trappings of religious music, but if it’s God you are looking for, I suggest you look elsewhere. This is pleasant, non-threatening music with a Jewish theme.