(photo credit: Craig N Co)
The Upper West Side's Congregation B'nai Jeshurun (or BJ, as it is sometimes affectionately nicknamed) is a cultural institution whose reach goes much farther than prayer. The organization boasts a full schedule of events, education programs, and even an in-house publications imprint - and all within the context of a neo-spiritualist bent. BJ's new "Days of Awe"- themed recording, Tekiyah, showcases their inclusive, spiritual world-view through the prism of the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur liturgy.
Tastefully and skillfully produced, engineered and mastered by BJ Music Director Ari Priven, Tekiyah features performances by three of the congregation's staff rabbis, Lizzie Kraiem and Priven himself. They are accompanied by various Eastern ethnic and Western orchestral performers - including Sultana's Yoel Ben-Simhon and Pharaoh's Daughter's Basya Schechter - yet the results don't feel like a forced hodge-podge by any means.
On the opening track, a rich organ sound sets down the traditional Rosh Hashanah nussah prayer melody, while a variety of voices sing along loosely. The result is a juxtaposition of informal, folk-y accessibility and material-appropriate heaviness - a combination that is carried out successfully throughout the disc. On "Hayom," the feel and melody transforms with every verse, while "Zokhrenu Lehayim II"'s mandolin picking evokes backwater Americana. "Besefer Hayim"'s balladeering approach skirts cheesiness thanks to its short duration and proliferation of cellos. The most creative composition here is "Impressions of Unetane Tokef," a sparse and primal rhythm, complete with inhales and exhales, that builds and builds with parts of the stirring Eleventh Century text being chanted in various interacting syncopations.
The flagship performer of the Craig N Co media brand, Los Angeles's Craig Taubman, has written sing-alongs for Disney and advertising jingles for Ford. Now he's an alternative cantor and Jewish music packager, and Inscribed is the breezy, west coast-style singer-songwriter's new introspective holiday album.
Interestingly, the second track's dramatic crescendo comes three minutes into the composition, serving more like a payoff than a chorus. Elsewhere, both "L'dor Vador" and "Adonai Ori V1.8" channel Billy Joel - the former at his most cheesy, the latter at his most wound-up. "Im Ain Ani Li" is an oud-punctuated social activism rap that sticks out as a sore thumb because of its eclectic inspirations. But the majority of Inscribed is comprised of bittersweet melodies, noodly clarinet, brushed drums, tinkly piano, and James Taylor-like vocal delivery.
Ben Jacobson can be reached at email@example.com.