klezmatic disk 88 224.
(photo credit: )
For an Oklahoman, Woody Guthrie sure had plenty of Jewish associates, from his spiritual son Bob Dylan; to his mother-in-law, the Yiddish poet Aliza Greenblatt; to the East Village's 1986-founded Jewish jazz act Klezmatics. Guthrie's intellectual property curator and heiress Nora Guthrie green-lighted the first-ever plundering of the Guthrie archives for 1998's Mermaid Avenue, a collection of new settings to old Guthrie verses helmed by neo-protest folkie Billy Bragg and alt-country rock auteurs Wilco. But when she began to explore the archive's Jewish connections almost eight years ago, she approached Klezmatics with an idea for an album that eventually became Wonder Wheel.
Sure, Wonder Wheel is presented through the warped prism of Eastern European klezmer flavors, but Klezmatics has always been more about the melting pot of the New World than any nostalgia for the shtetl. In fact, the album is so grounded in an Americana headspace (a song called "Holy Ground" sounds like such a backwater hymn that it could easily pass for a bonus track on the old-time folk-heavy O Brother soundtrack), it's ironic that it won a Grammy in the World Music category.
Anchored by low-key banjo picking, "Gonna Get Through" breaks into a soaring and affirming chorus before ending with a niggun-like chant coda. The Coney Island street on which Guthrie lived makes a big impression on "Mermaid's Avenue," where all types of people are involved with all types of colorful activities in a circus-like nostalgic ode more than slightly reminiscent of the Kinks' "Come Dancing." On "Wheel of Life," dreamy moods emerge from a drone and take shape as bright and tight ethnic jams. Only on "Goin' Away," however, does a signature proper klez clarinet-noodled riff make an appearance.
A landmark accomplishment, Wonder Wheel indisputably succeeds in carrying the listener to a place where poles like folked-up versus jazzed-out, Oklahoman versus Eastern European and down-to-earth versus transcendental all seem irrelevant.
Generations: Journey Across the Ages
Winnipeg-raised Rabbi Shawn Zevit keeps himself busy as a Reconstructionist clergyman. Now based in Philadelphia, Zevit is a specialist on Judaism's take on gender issues. He published a 2004 treatise on community-based charity entitled Offerings of the Heart and he has released three full-length albums - most recently the double-disc Generations. This album is a personal project for Zevit, with an old family portrait serving as the cover art and disc two being comprised of remastered hazzanut- and Shabbat-themed sing-alongs between him and his grandfather, originally recorded in the early Nineties.
On disc one, Zevit explores the Kabbalat Shabbat prayer service through original melodies written by himself and his peers, liturgical texts and a tranquil mood. Even if it does get a bit goofy as it emulates guided meditation session styles, on the whole, this song suite is relaxed and tasteful. Through his vocals and acoustic guitar contributions, Zevit leads the listener into an appropriately release-oriented headspace, while easy mandolin, fretless bass, violin, hand percussion and Rabbi Margot Stein's elegant, Jennifer Warnes-like soprano harmonies fill in the lazy yet rich bluegrass-inspired soundscape.
Ben Jacobson can be reached at email@example.com.