Saturday, November 27, 2010

Review "Little Taste of Torah" Peter & Ellen Allard

Peter and Ellen Allard are masters of music for young children. This is a CD for both young and old, and it has solid roots in their personal Jewish journey. I sometimes get nervous when I hear that people whose music I like, are trying something new. You never know if they will build upon their strengths, or discard all of what we love about them as they choose to embrace their new passion and reinvent themselves.

As I heard the opening bars of this CD though, I sighed with relief, grinned, and quietly thanked Peter and Ellen Allard for producing an album that exposes their songwriting genius brilliantly in music that both children and adults will be humming all week long. It mirrors the Allard's closer embrace of Torah and things Jewish, while it builds upon their genius with kids music. Peter and Ellen combine their increasing personal Jewish passion, writing for a more sophisticated audience while still keeping their roots firmly planted in kid-friendly music. It was a huge risk, blending the three; lots of variables on the table. I think that it was astonishingly successful!

This CD also has that elevated standing and cohesiveness that I call an "Album" (with a capital "A"). "Little Taste of Torah" is not merely a collection of songs, with one or two shining stars. It is a constellation, a complete experience, deliciously packaged, with a full lyrics sheet, liner notes and almost 50 minutes (14 songs) of joyous music that is crisply produced. It moves away from their previously folk-oriented style into the realm of easy-listening rock, perfectly suited to a broader audience. I was delighted to hear more of Peter's vocals front and center. From beginning to end it shows off the diverse and seasoned songwriting of the Allards, and begs for another listen.

Confession. I'm old enough to have waited in line to get my hands on Sgt. Pepper, or Tommy or the Beatle's White Album, and I remember reserving an afternoon to become friends with the music, to listen with the lyrics, and to drink in the experience without distraction. I recommend that you do the same with the Allard's CD. The chorus hooks and tasty rhythms will quickly speak to the child in you, and each melody will stir your senses with the rich production and diverse but universally engaging styles. Each subsequent listen will transform these songs from an acquaintance into a close friend, revealing nuances and depth not initially apparent.

When listening, I first thought, "what a wonderful treat and surprise". Then, I stepped back and realized, "of course this music would be great". If you think about it, it makes perfect sense that Peter and Ellen would be able to create music that sneaks into our soul. They have mastered the art of songwriting and performing with young children, and I would submit that kids have a sixth sense for revealing anything disingenuous or formulaic. The Allards shoot from the hip and shoot for the heart, bringing their sensitivity, vibrant spirit and energy into this music, delivering it directly to the child in you. It is music that engages, comforts and nourishes; it soothes, invites you to move your arms and your body, and surrounds you with warm genuine laughter, love and a joy of being Jewish.

The CD opens with "Trees", a catchy melody that draws together an appreciation of nature, consciousness for green, and the option to engage and participate with the lyrics by waving your arm "branches" and "standing up for trees". On whatever level you get involved, this is fun, happy, positive music.

"Baby Moses in a Basket" sound like a kid's song title that I would easily pass over, but it pleasantly surprised me with a tight blues arrangement, contagious chorus hook, and a taste of the interesting phrasing and syncopated lyrics that raise the Allards songwriting out of the nursery and into the mainstream of Contemporary Jewish music. Peter is a brilliant guitarist, Ellen and Peter create rich, almost effortless harmony, and their collective songwriting brings the melodic and rhythmic complexity of Jason Mraz or Dave Matthews to fun, Jewish-themed new music.

There is a certain lulling, hypnotic lure to the rhythm of the nursery rhymes and lullabies of our childhood, that trigger reflexive calm from deep within us. From their work with early childhood music, the Allards have perfected the art of not only recreating and bottling this magic, but also tune-smithing new music that evokes the same spirit in us. It is a potent cocktail, blended perfectly by Peter and Ellen, to engage and indulge the senses. (Always drink responsibly!)

Compared to the Allard's previous releases, aimed at young children, and with a "classroom" feel to the recordings, this CD is impeccably produced (Steve Brodsky) and recorded (Scott Leader) in the studio to sit comfortably on your iPod beside ColdPlay and your favorite secular artist, without apology. "Little Taste of Torah" is not a kid's CD that parents will endure in the car, but rather music that will resonate with the whole family. I think that is a feat of genius.

There is one missing element on this CD. You really need to see Peter and Ellen in person to let them engage you physically with their music. Ellen brings a unique and contagious theatrical and dance presence to their performance that draws everyone out of their seat, up on their feet and moving to the music. Don't miss them in person! Here is a listing of their schedule.

Shir Hamakom, our Jewish music worship chavurah in CT is excited to have Peter and Ellen join us on December 10th, 2010. More details.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Review of "Lift" by The Josh Nelson Project

LIFT (2009)

The Josh Nelson Project

From the first bars of this CD, released by New York Jewish rocker, Josh Nelson, it was clear that this music would be seriously getting under my skin and lifting my spirits. It will have the same effect on you. I know it will.

The opening track, “Yih’yu L’ratzon”, often set in worship as a quiet meditation, breaks rank with that tradition and offers a driving, pulsing tight rock mantra for listeners that whets my appetite for this whole album. What is apparent from the first 20 seconds into this CD is that Josh has created Jewish music that doesn’t apologize or separate itself from the rest of the music on your iPod, just as messages of Torah should walk with us outside of a worship setting and infuse the everyday moments of our lives with meaning. Josh gives us a beautiful soundtrack to do this.

His anthem, “Hava Nashira”, is the vital, vibrant mantra of a new generation of Jews, whose spirit is magnified in youth groups and summer camp experiences to feel the bass guitar and kickdrum heartbeat of Judaism in Josh’s music. It is unapologetic, celebratory and unbridled, perfectly Jewish, but unlike any worship or synagogue experience that your parents ever dragged you to. It is Jewish music, reinvented, with the throttle pressed into overdrive.

Some of the music here is reflective. “I” is a heartfelt ballad which exposes Josh’s versatility in both songwriting and performing. He is able to reach directly into each of us with songs like these, and he finds and pulls at our spirit, inviting us to join him in his moment of sadness. “L’dor Vador” similarly draws us together as Jews, chain-linked by “words…stories… pictures of the past” to generations before us. In our music worship community ( in CT, we use this powerful song as a prelude to the mourner’s kaddish, remembering those who came before us.

Josh is one of the few people who tirelessly hand delivers this music to his global audience. He has performed at over 1000 concert venues including URJ Biennials, CAJE and Limmud, spreading his rock Judaism to tens of thousands of attendees.

I have to admit that I’ve heard Josh perform in concert many times, and it is difficult to separate my associations of the high energy, dynamic yet gentle presence that is Josh Nelson live, from this take-home musical snapshot of a memorable concert when you came to know, and feel, Josh’s music first hand. To experience Josh work his music and his spirit through the congregation or audience is his finest calling. One person standing near me in the audience of one of Josh’s concert, dancing in the aisle, said “this music is such delicious food for the spirit”. Her friend quickly added, “and he is such eye candy.” Josh has all the bases covered, and he is a great role model for a new generation of Jews, looking for spirituality as well as great music that feels at home, both on your iPod or on the radio.

One thing that I love about this CD, apart from the stellar production, beautiful tunesmithing and wonderful musicians…is the packaging. Simple thing, I know, but in this digital age of downloads and binary content, it is nice to hold and examine and explore a tri-fold CD with lyrics, photos and an invitation into the world of Josh Nelson.

If you want to hear Jewish music, served up perfectly, buy “Lift”. I could tell you to download the nearly half dozen tracks that I consider classics, but best that you take the whole journey that Josh Nelson has painstakingly offered on this CD. Crank up the volume in the car on a beautiful day and let it move you. It will become your soundtrack. You will feel proud to be Jewish. It will lift you and make you smile.

Arnie Davidson

Thursday, October 16, 2008

An Eye for an "I"

As I've become involved with contemporary Jewish Music, and prayer and worship music, there is one trend that I'm concerned about, and that is "facilitating Personal Worship within the community". I think we've been painting ourselves into a corner as our worship (and worship music) evolves. In some ways, we are to blame for the lack of growth of our worship communities and for the dwindling attendance at worship services.

The disease that has infiltrated our worship services, as we seek to become relevant and inclusive, is ignoring each worshipper's Personal Connection to God. Our liturgy sets the stage for this by using language that is largely plural and what I call "group-speak." I stumbled on this when I composed a setting for the meditation, Y'hiyu L'ratzon, on the occasion of my son's Bar Mitzvah service. Searching for words that would honor this important passage from youth to Jewish adulthood, I also wanted to include the aspect of "humility," a personality trait that is deeply hidden during the hormonal bravado of "thirteen-ness." The opening words to this prayer are "I stand before this congregation, and pray to You, O G-d. May my deeds reflect Your teachings, and Torah light my way. Grant me understanding, and make my life a blessing."

This prayer hit its mark in the worship context of personalizing my own child's rite of passage. But something else occurred - our congregation wouldn't let it go. This prayer has become a part of our Shabbat worship for every service since that day in early 2000. There is something inviting and compelling (and different) in those words of worship. I consulted with our cantorial soloist, who informed me that this prayer, among her favorites, is personal. "Except for Unetaneh Tokef on Yom Kippur (the thousand year old personal awakening to repentance), there aren't prayers that speak to each person personally in our worship." Which leads me back to the issue of "Personal Worship."

I think that we've come a long way toward making our services "group-inviting." "Bring your friends and come on down" to be a part of our community and to worship "together." Our prayers speak to groups, and contemporary music makes it all the more accessible. Contemporary Jewish music has provided a medium for community worship that leaves worshippers feeling included and radiant from prayer and song - but without moments for (what I call) "Personal G_dSpeak." Each of us welcomes a sense of belonging and community, but each of us, at our core, needs the nourishment of our own personal relationship with G-d. I believe that one of the reasons that Jews unite for High Holiday worship, is the draw and personal connection to the theme of these days of awe.

Many species travel in groups for it's social component and strength, but each comes into this world, and leaves this world, alone. We each are stewards of unique gifts that give us our own spiritual fingerprint. Groups of like minded people help us to nurture our own strengths. But we also need moments to shed the group and personally make our unique connection with G_d. Contemporary Jewish music can facilitate that, but the early works in this relatively new genre are crowded with upbeat guitar strumming "feel-good" group songs and prayers. My personal mission, as a songwriter, is to provide a vehicle, through contemporary Jewish music, to help each of us reach for personal "G_dSpeak" moments in our worship. Once prayer becomes personal, the sanctuary becomes home. I'm not advocating turning our worship away from community, but rather, increasing moments within our worship, to nourish the individual.
You can listen to some of my newer pieces, including "Into the Light" and "Elohai" reflecting this idea of personal worship, (in their early musical evolution) here.

Here are a few more examples of favorite new prayers that reflect and nurture these personal moments. Dan Nichols, at the Jewish music workshop, Hava Nashira, presented a moving and beautiful setting of Birkat Hagomel, the personal prayer in thanks for surviving danger. Josh Nelson has a moving and beautiful original prayer called L'dor Vador, nurturing the connection that we have from generation to generation. This piece, for me, perfectly blends our group identity with our unique and personal relationship with G-d.

Each of us is a part of all of us, and all of us is a part of each of us.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Contemporary Jewish Music is thriving here.

Last week, I returned from an incredible and incredibly intense Jewish music workshop hosted at Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute in Oconomowoc, WI. This annual gathering, sponsored by the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), is, as described at their webpage is a "unique event, (where) some of the finest Jewish music innovators and composers, including Debbie Friedman, Cantor Jeff Klepper, & Rabbi Dan Freelander, Craig Taubman, Julie Silver, Rabbi Joe Black, Cantor Josee Wolff, Cantor Ellen Dreskin, Merri Lovinger Arian, Cantor Jordan Franzel, Rabbi Lisa Zur, Dan Nichols, Cantor Rosalie Will Boxt, Peter & Ellen Allard, Josh Nelson, Ken Chasen and Danny Maseng have shared their music and their skills".

As a composer of Jewish music, (Project ben David) with a primary focus of integrating Contemporary Jewish music (CJM) into worship, I welcomed the opportunity to meet 250 rabbis, cantors, songleaders, composers and performers interacting and sharing music nonstop for 4 solid days. Everyone left energized, albeit somewhat hoarse.

CJM is young, perhaps only 30 years young, and had its roots in popular songwriters and performers such as Debbie Friedman and Jeff Klepper, among many others. At this workshop, both of these notable performers reacquainted us with their early material, now classics, such as Friedman's "Mi Shebeirach - Prayer for Healing" and Klepper's "Shalom Rav." Well known composer, Doug Cotler has a song entitled "Standing on the Shoulders" which reminds us that each generation builds itself upon the traditions, insights (and music) of those who precede them. This concept of "L'dor VaDor - from generation to generation" was evident among the Jewish musicians and lovers of Jewish music present, which included young camp songleaders, barely 20 years old as well as seasoned cantors who represented nearly a half century of prayer-based music. All stood together, joining voices to reaffirm the familiar and to absorb the leading edge of this music. All learned together to open their vision to new sounds and to sharpen skills in songleading and songwriting.

It is impossible to cite one prayer or song, without slighting a dozen others. New music from Jewish music legends such as Craig Taubman, Peter and Ellen Allard, Debbie Friedman, Jeff Klepper, Julie Silver, Josh Nelson, Doug Cotler, Dan Nichols, Ellen Dreskin, Rosalie Boxt, Ken Chasen, and many others provided 4 days of clear evidence that CJM is maturing and is very alive, healthy and vibrant. The music and arrangements are becoming more complex and more closely mirroring contemporary secular music in song structure. Music production has improved as musicians and performers, turned producers, have one foot in popular music and the other firmly rooted in Judaic tradition and liturgy.
Lyrics also, are maturing, leaving behind formulaic translations from the Siddur and becoming more personal and interpretive.

Music from Dan Nichols/E18teen, Beth Schafer, Josh Nelson, Julie Silver, Craig Taubman, Ken Chasen and many others are producing new music that reaches beyond the sanctuary and worship context into mainstream popular/inspirational music that becomes a part of the soundtrack of our lives. It is at home on the bimah at services as well as on the personal playlists of countless iPods.

I left this workshop with the feeling that CJM was alive and well and becoming the spiritual rhythm and backdrop of a new generation of Jews; inviting and welcoming a generation rooted in YouTube and iTunes to find new meaning in returning to our rich liturgy. Jews have long wrested with the challenge of living Judaism in a secular world.

A concern that Jews have faced for generations concerns assimilation and the possibility of diluting our Judaic heritage with increased integration in secular society. In my recent experience with CJM, I see a new model emerging, where familiar rhythms and music from our secular world have turned inward to reinforce our rich Judaic and liturgical traditions. Conversely, lasting and time tested Jewish values have truly become a compass for all of life, 24/7, and not confined to a few hours of temple worship and religious education, apart from our secular world. CJM can be a welcome bridge of familiarity as these concepts are embraced with pride by a new generation of Jews.

I'd like to take a moment and introduce you to a young songwriter/performer, Max Chaiken, from this workshop who is living and breathing this new paradigm. Max's music is based on Jewish liturgy, but Max and his music are one - Max IS his music in all that he does. He shares his music as head songleader at the URJ Camp Harlam in PA during the summer. But his music, and his Judaism runs throughout all aspects of his life. In his Blog he discusses the successes and challenges of integrating Judaism, activism and music, even including a gym playlist which moves from an opening upbeat Modeh Ani (morning prayer) by Dan Nichols, to songs by Guster and Jamiroquai.

I humbly suggest that living a Jewish life means finding a way to integrate all things Jewish with the richness of every aspect of life around us. I personally applaud Max for taking us along on his journey. I also encourage you to listen to his contagious Eliyahu Hanavi, which he shared with us the workshop earlier this month. Enjoy.


Thursday, May 8, 2008

Welcome to JewMuse!

Thanks for visiting and subscribing.

For me, Contemporary Jewish Music, CJM, seems to flow from a natural expression and desire to integrate myself with Judaism and with my community. I call that place of inspiration and creative process "finding my muse." So JewMuse is the personal exploration with you, in this blog, of using CJM to enhance participation in worship and to draw our communities ever closer through vibrant music.
Welcome to JewMuse!

You can find out more about me and my music at Project ben David as well as enjoy a free MP3 download with my compliments.

3 Ways to Use Contemporary Jewish Music in Worship

For nearly 10 years, I have had the unique opportunity to help rethink our worship services, and I’d like to share a few things that I’ve learned, easy changes that you can make, to re-involve your community in worship. The desire to be inclusive of all, regardless of Judaic background or affiliation, has prompted much of my music, and has driven our congregation to embrace Ontemporary Jewish Music (CJM) as a central part of our worship. Here are a few "action steps" that we've found to use CJM to build participation and community.

1) Expose ways that Judaism offers a magnificent legacy of prayer and a beautiful structure and flow to our Shabbat service. Although many are familiar with the basic prayers, few have stopped to appreciate the ways that our liturgy applauds and supports our daily lives. As we seek to include more members who have limited Judaic background, it becomes ever more important to draw them in and make them familiar with the structure of our traditions and rich content of our liturgy.

Take 5 minutes in each service, and dissect a prayer. Translate the Hebrew into modern English, and relate the prayer to a human moment and emotion. One of the ways that I’ve found to do this, is with music which marries the traditional Hebrew with English interpretation. Once someone connects their life, their feelings, their joy or their pain with the ancient words of our ancestors, they embrace and become linked to that prayer, that moment of discovery. Here is an example of interpreting/translating a prayer with "Esa Einai" Note this is a FREE MP3 download from my project ben David, please enjoy and consider using it in your worship.

2) Celebrate the creations, promotions and achievements in your worship community. Often, the names we hear recited at our worship services are names of people in need; people who could use our healing, people observing Yartzeit, names of the departed. These are critical moments where our community draws together in support, but we also need to rally together in constant celebration, and give the positive equal airplay. We cannot ignore the constant positive that surrounds us that often goes unacknowledged. Worship has, in many cases, taken a turn to acknowledge mourning and healing over triumph and recognition. Celebrate birthdays and anniversaries. Invite congregants to present their achievements, the books and articles that they have written, the music and art and sculpture and poetry that flows from them; the unselfish voluntary acts of kindness that often go unnoticed. There is no greater way to become conscious of the presence of God than to celebrate publicly with a bracha, a Shehechiyanu or a Mi Shebeirach. Again, you can find music to help integrate, applaud and recognize these personal moments that serve to unite your community and draw congregants closer to worship. The prayer Mi Shebeirach is an example of this, praying for healing but in an upbeat, conscious-of-our-blessings way using CJM. Mi Shebeirach lyrics.

3) Use the first-person in worship. Here’s where I was told that I broke the rules, but I’m glad I did. Over time, this prayer, based on Y'Hiyu L'Ratzon, has captured the personal relationship with God that each of our worshipers must ultimately establish. This prayer, written for my son’s Bar Mitzvah, has endured in our congregational worshipfor reasons far beyond my own talent. In my opinion, this prayer has touched many lives because it speaks directly to God. “I stand before this congregation, and pray to You, O God.”

Over time, we as Jews, have evolved away from expressing our personal relationship with God, in favor of introducing a third party, our Rabbi and Cantor and Worship Leaders, to speak for us. Our prayers provide a wonderful structure, a context for worship, that has endured for generations. But, in the process, the language has evolved away from our direct contact with God, and towards speaking to God in the plural, as a congregation and community. Any time we delegate, we lose some of our direct contact. And prayer, to me, is a visceral , one-on-one, get-your-hands-dirty personal activity that defies being delegated. Ultimately, each of us forge our own personal relationship with God. I invite you to explore prayer-based music that speaks directly to God, as a way to personally draw in your community to individually find meaning in worship. Here is a link to Y'hiyu L'ratzon mentioned above.

I appreciate your comments and hope that some of these ideas will help you to incorporate CJM into your community and to make worship a rich and unifying experience for all. -Arnie