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Neshamah


Neshamah
Released: 1999

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Neshamah
Songs from the Jewish Diaspora


This project is the result of a unique opportunity presented to me by John Zorn. Using Jewish music as a motif, I followed a thread that runs through the Near-East, Middle-East, Mediterranean, Eastern Europe, North Africa, Iberia Timand the Americas. There have been some really nice surprises and discoveries along the way. I can think of no other genre, except maybe Gypsy music, that is found in such far-flung regions while retaining a core harmonic vocabulary.
    There is a convergence of many styles of music, and many of my own musical experiences. I found in these pieces a lyrical architecture, full of possibilities for chord substitutions and harmonization. You might say it's a marriage of high and low. There are ideas that come from adapting Tchaikovsky and Bela Bartok to solo guitar, as well as jazz harmony. I have wedded these to strands of country blues, flamenco and melodic phrases that come from the lexicon of the Middle-Eastern oud and saz.

Meditation on the Baal Shem Tov's Melody: There's a story that a deaf man came upon a group of the Baal Shem Tov's disciples who were singing and dancing. He concluded from their expressions and gyrations that they were all crazy, because unfortunately, he couldn't hear the music. I came across this tune on a wonderful recording by Israeli violinist Yehoshua Rochman.

Hamisha Asar: A song by Flory Jagoda, the Bosnian Sephardic composer who grew up in a village near Sarajevo and settled in America after WWII. Ms. Jagoda has a lovely voice and has written many beautiful songs in Ladino. I also think she is quite a guitar player. This track is written in a Balkan dance meter of 3+2+2/8. It's a great rhythm to improvise on, kind of like a lopsided waltz.

Odessa Mama (Odesa Mame): From a rendition by Aaron Lebedeff (1873-1960), a famous Yiddish entertainer. It was originally recorded in the 1920's with an orchestra led by Sholom Secunda. Lebedeff was a larger than life figure and is said to have been quite a lady's man. One thing that is especially interesting in this rendition is an E-minor flat five chord towards the end, a very early example of a sound that would become a staple of jazz in the '40s and '50s.

Skrip, Klezmerl Skripe: Play: Klezmer, Play is another Yiddish classic by Khaim Tauber and Sholom Secunda, also recorded by Aaron Lebedeff. Like Odessa Mama, this song has a wonderful extended intro and gives one a sense of the well that composers like Harold Arlen and George Gershwin were drinking from.

Los Caminos de Sirkeci: A love song from a Sephardic neighborhood in Istanbul, written in a Balkan dance rhythm of 3+2/8. The conception for this track and Hamisha Asar is to keep the pulse going with my thumb, kind of like an odd-meter Bossa Nova, while improvising a melody in an Oriental oud/Bouzouki filigree.

Kad Jawajuni: I learned this off a recording made by the Beth Hatefutsoth Museum of the Jewish Diaspora. Titled Neve Midhar, it features a lovely Israeli singer named Lea Avrahm. I hope I distill a little of the spirit of her performance into my solo guitar version. The title translates roughly as "They married me." This is a game song typical of central and southern Yemen, sung and danced by women at weddings or henna ceremonies, sometimes known as "the song of the face and hands." The rhythmic architecture of the guitar arrangement owes a lot to a dance from Northeastern Brazil called Biao. It seems my improvisation looks a little toward Africa and a little toward the Indian Ocean.

A Hora Mit Tzibeles: A Hora with Onions, by clarinet virtuoso Naftule Brandwein, a lengendary fgure of Klezmer music in the early 20th Century. To my ears, he seems to have been as important a voice in Klezmer as Jelly Roll Morton or Louis Armstrong were in jazz. The compositions of Naftule Brandwein are my personal favorites. I knew nothing about this music until I started this project, and I fell in love with this song.

Viva Orduena: A Sephardic folksong from Morocco. I perform this song on the oud with Voices of Sephard, where I've learned most of the Sephardic tunes heard on this CD. My process of arriving at solo guitar arrangements of these songs was simply experimentation, seeing what ideas were suggested by playing the melody in question in this key or that. This selection ended up as a wild melange of Judeo-Spanish court music with African pentatonic string bends!

Quando El Rey Nimrod: In this song, King Nimrod looks out over his city one night and sees a brilliant star shining above the house where Abraham is born. I try to conjure up the quiet evening, the slumbering town, and the starry sky before launching the melody of this old Sephardic traditional.

A Leybedike Honga: A Lively Honga, from a 1925 recording by Harry Kandel's Orchestra. Clarinetist Harry Kandel led a brass band in the Czarist military before coming to Philadelphia. It's a lovely little tune but quite a handful to play.

Rabbi Yochanan The Shoemaker's Melody: From a rendition by Yehoshua Rochman, this tune is traditionally changed after midnight on Lag B'omer, in a torchlight procession on Mount Meron.

Freylich: This tune seemed to want to be played as a rhumba. I used the key of F sharp which is a favorite key of flamenco guitarists when using this scale. F sharp serves as a pivot between E minor and G major for improvisations.

Sholem Aleichem: this popular tune is usually played in a bright tempo. Here I wanted to explore some of the nuances and feelings implied by the melody, so it came out as a kind of dreamy ballad.

Naftule Spielt Far Dem Rebin: Naftule Plays for the Rabbi. Naftule's performances have an edgy energy. As on all 78's, there was a need to get a version down in just a few minutes playing time. I slowed it down for the beginning, while trying to preserve its stately gait. There is a lot going on in this tune of only two and a half minutes!

Addio Querida: Goodbye Precious. I've been told that when an evacuation of part of the Jewish community was arranged during the seige of Sarajevo, the departees and those staying behind sang this song as the buses were leaving. This version is inspired in equal measure by renditions of Flory Jagoda and the Bulgarian Women's choir.

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