VARIOUS ARTISTS U'Shmuel B'Korei Sh'mo (Sameach Music) While serving as president of the prominent Aish Kodesh synagogue in Woodmere, New York, Azriel Ganz arranged for many of Israel's greatest religious musicians to perform at the institution. He forged lasting relationships with many of these artists, who often stayed at his home singing zmirot (Sabbath table hymns), sometimes composed on the spot. When his father, Cantor Samuel Ganz, passed away in late 2004, Azriel Ganz and his family founded Shirei Shmuel, an organization dedicated to promoting the use of music to bring people close to holy energies. The organization's first project is the newly released U'Shmuel B'Korei Sh'mo, a compilation of original recordings by many of the artists close to Ganz. The disc opens with Chaim Dovid and Shlomo Katz performing "The Ganz'e Tance," a niggun the former composed at Azriel Ganz's home (Dovid and Katz even coerced Ganz into singing harmonies on the track). The cut works especially well as an opener, with its buoyant energy and Katz's sweet vocals. Yosef Karduner's "Ha'aleinu," a folky, intimate number, represents the neo-Breslover's style well, even if it does get repetitious. Aaron Razel's "Yom Shabason," first hummed at the Ganz homestead several years ago, appears as a schmaltzed-up conga here. Diaspora Yeshiva Band frontman Avraham Rosenblum's "Im Eshkochech" evokes the American backwater South, as many good niggunim do, with some excellent mandolin solos by Andy Statman thrown in for good measure. The disc does get bogged down in some dos-pop territory - most notably on Nochi Krohn's "Tzeitchem" - but for the most part, this is soulful contemporary folk music packaged with good taste and noble motivations. FLOR DE SERENA Self-titled (Flor De Serena Records) The brainchild of Los Angeles-based classical performers Jordan Charnofsky (guitar) and Vanessa Paloma (harp, vocals), the Flor De Serena ensemble explores new treatments of Judeo-Spanish folk compositions written from the Middle Ages through contemporary times. For the young ensemble's recently released debut recording, Charnofsky and Paloma were supplemented by a flutist, a percussionist, a cellist and two bassists. At its best, the disc's artistic Ladino landscape is marked by elegance and emotion, with Flor De Serena conveying both these elements with intoxicating skill. "Paxarico" is an imprecise, free-meter meditation, while "Morena Sos Dama" evokes Ashkenazi folk styles. But for the most part, Serena is an ethnic music lover's dream - thanks especially to the Eastern noodling of "Una Matica" and the poetic rhythmic drive of "Ven Querida" and the opening "Alta Alta as La Luna." Ben Jacobson can be reached at email@example.com.