Few bands have had as much influence on the Jewish music world as the Piamentas. Until the Piamentas came on the scene in 1980, Jewish music had never held musicians of exceptional virtuosity. With their appearance, Jewish music suddenly had top class musicians to call their own. Yossi and Avi Piamenta took both old songs and new and really made magic with their instruments. Their sound is utterly unique – a brilliant mixture of the sounds of America and the Middle East; rock, blues and Chassidic Niggunim; Jimi Hendrix and Ian Anderson meet Jo Amar and MBD. While Yossi is the “Sefardic Santana” and the “Hassidic Hendrix”, Avi is the equally talented brother with no less ability than Yossi. They take turns, each presenting searing solos with their own tool – guitar or flute. Many of their songs are standards at weddings – whether their own compositions, or their rip-offs with a new take. While Diaspora Yeshiva Band and the Megama Duo came before them, and tens of bands came afterwards, the Piamentas will always be known as the #1 in Jewish rock ‘n roll.
First (unreleased) album: Anyone know where we can get a copy of the Piamenta/Stan Getz album? Yes, we know it was never produced; but SOMEone has got to have a copy of it! If you’re a Piamenta fan, you really are intrigued if you listen to the song “Kill the Snake” on Piamenta’s website (www.piamenta.com).
(****) Let’s Dance with the Piamentas: The Piamentas’ first solo offering was this instrumental wedding album – two tracks of twenty minutes each. This is a great album to listen to when you’re driving long distances at night – it really keeps you awake, with your heart pumping! The sound is smooth, fast paced, with lots of surprises, and seamless. Many of the songs are recognizable hits, some of them are lesser known oldies. My favorite spots on the album are on the second medley, at 2:11 (Yifrach) – during the chorus, Yossi flies up the fretboard, and at 18:00, during the Kazatzka, where he just goes nuts, and Avi follows it with a beautiful solo of his own. To me, the second medley is better than the first, but they’re both very enjoyable.
(*****) Mitzvah: The Piamentas’ first regular album was a first in many ways – it’s an album that features 10 songs and plenty of improv and wild solos. It really flipped the Jewish music world, not only as it was the first true rock album (Diaspora was more country than rock, and Megama was more folk), but it was also the first album in which the music carried the album more than the lyrics, tunes or vocals. With outstanding songs such as Mitzvah, Vehu Rachum and Vayiven Uziyahu, along with the gorgeous Ve’af Gam Zot, this album has many highlights. The one song I never quite got was Elkanah – both in terms of the lyrics, as well as musically. One can imagine that the album was before it’s time. It seems that the response from the Jewish music world was lukewarm, as their next two albums returned to the wedding style album, similar to Let’s Dance.
(***) The Piamenta Band – Azreini Keil Chai: Another two track, twenty minute each album – this time featuring vocals. This album does not have the smooth quality of Let’s Dance, and the untrained vocals stick out. However, there is more of the rock element at work here than on Let’s Dance. There are some awesome songs and solos here as well – at 9:44 during the Oriental Medley, Avi hits some phenomenal spots during his solo (along with Yossi’s patented cry of, “Avi!”). Not to be outdone, Yossi has a beautiful solo at 12:35. A unique Piamenta shtick are the Arabic exclamations – “Yachalalaw!” – and that begins in earnest on this album. While this album may not feel as polished as their first two albums, it added an element of spontaneity with the live feel that became a Piamenta hallmark.
(***) Tismach: This little-known album was a single sided, 25 minute wedding album. It is extremely similar in style to Azreini, to the extent that it is almost a continuation of that album. One weakness is the electric drums, but they are (thankfully) overshadowed by the frenetic flute and guitar. There are a number of songs here that are virtually unknown, including a Vesamachta and a wordless niggun, that are positively extraordinary. At 12:10, Yossi blows into a powerful solo, followed by a haunting flute solo that is also remarkable. One strange element on the album is during the niggun Vechol Karnei – carrying out two notes for a very long time without really picking up the music behind it. If this had been done in a more professional manner, it would have sounded better.
(*****) 1990: And then the Piamentas struck gold. Starting with the uber-hit Siman Tov, and ending with the mega-hit Asher Bara, with plenty of awesome moments in between, this is quite an album. My personal gripe is that the quality of the sound leaves one thirsting, but besides that, this is a flawless album: from exquisite compositions (the underrated Hinei Lo Yanum, the beautiful Techiyat Hameitim), phenomenal adaptations (Adir, Haaderet, Asher Bara), and surprisingly, excellent vocals displayed on Vaharikoti, the tremendous – and also underrated – Lecha Dodi, and, not to forget, the vocal piece in Asher Bara. This album remains a classic.
(*) Songs of the Rebbes: Another wedding style album – but from two tracks, to one track, to four tracks. This was an attempt to showcase important niggunim from many Chassidic dynasties. The album is severely lacking in Piamenta spirit – the arrangements are, surprisingly enough, terribly shallow. Besides that, the Poilish accent of the choir versus the Israeli accent of the Piamentas sounds cumbersome. The best moment on the album is from 12:10 of A Gut Yor to the end – when at long last – finally! – they release into some swirling solos and the expected Piamenta madness. If only the whole album was like that!
(*****) The Way You Like It!: Well, the drop off was only temporary. Another brilliant release, with massive hits such as Od Yishama and the Kurdish Yalla Mashiach. In my mind, this is what a classy album sounds like – the songs here just resonate with life. The Sefardic masterpiece Chabibi is just out of this world, with a wild jazz jam session going on toward the end of the track – this, friends, is the creative genius of truly talented musicians, and not nameless session guys! Leshana Haba’a is a stroke of genius – with the harmonies piling on top of each other one after the other (and, as was pointed out on the boards here at JMR, this song was composed by Avi, arranged and recorded in one day!). The arrangements on this album are like none other – the stunning instrumental Belz; the “Now, now, now” section on Bo’ee Veshalom, and the entire Hu Asher Diber. Truly an inspired piece of work. If this album has a weakness, it’s in the drum solo during Od Yishama – Shlomo Deshet could do better than that! (See Esta: Mediterranean Crossroads.) This is one of the few albums in Jewish music that gets better from the first song on, and never lets up. Easily in my top 10 list.
(*****) Strings of My Heart: And moving from inspired to inspired – Strings of My Heart can only be described as such, as well. This album won Yossi international acclaim, as well as an appearance on MTV. Persistent rumor has it that Yossi was even marked up as one of the ten top guitarists in the world by Billboard, but even Yossi himself has never seen the article. I always wonder where that would place Avi in top flautists in the world, as well. The kicker about is apparently the Piamenta family has a video of the band recording this killer album – now wouldn’t you like to get your hands on THAT?! You can find incredible moments all the way through this. For me, the song Yehuda takes the cake. The story behind the song Dream of Redemption is this: Yossi was having a hard time with his compositions, and one day, while saying Tehillim, he fell asleep. He dreamed that he saw hundreds of people dancing to this tune. When he woke up a while later, the dream was fresh in his mind, and he started playing the tune. It was only much later (days?) that he realized that this wasn’t an old niggun – it was a fresh composition! THAT, among many other things, is what makes this an inspired album.
(****) Big Time: Hit, after hit, after hit. Kol Hamesameach, which is ripped off of a Turkish song, is a brilliant adaptation – the harmonies, again, prove that the Piamentas are able to craft a CD vocally as well as anyone. (Just an aside – besides for the Piamenta’s take on it, the tune has been adapted in Hebrew, Russian, and English. It’s quite popular across the world.) Other stolen tunes on this album are the oldy-but-goody Baruch Haba (I Know Something About Love) and Instrumental – another Kurdish tune. But the Piamentas do beautiful jobs on the Sefardic Ana Bechasdecha, as well as the rehash of Avi’s Hora (released on Avi’s Pedutainu Tatzmiach album as “Le’atid Lavo”). Another well crafted album, and very enjoyable musical experience. Although this album may not have the sheer power of 1990 or The Way You Like It, it’s not a bad album by any stretch of the imagination.
(**) Piamenta Live NYC Performance: This was a disappointment. It had been a long time in coming. Everyone knew that live is when you’ll experience pure Piamenta. Here, the weaknesses are many: For one, Avi’s not there. Secondly, the recording quality is fairly low. Thirdly, the vocals are severely lacking – beginning with the overwhelming “ARE YOU READY?!” that begins the album, and moving on to each song. It was obviously just released without any post-concert work, and it shows. The album starts out well enough, with a rocking Od Yishama. It also includes three songs that had not been produced on a Piamenta album previously – Baruch Ata, Birkat Hamazon, and Agadelcha, as well as the Arabic Medley that was lifted from Ken Gross’ Mostly Horas. They’re good performances, all in all, but again, between the sound quality and the lack of Avi, this album could have been THAT much better produced. One more big question: why in the world was Elkanah brought back from the dead?
(***) Sason V’Simcha: At this point, the questions needs to be asked: What’s with the Piamentas and wedding albums? At least this album had new stuff – the Gypsy Otchee Tchornaya; the Spanish Porom Pom Pom; the Klezmer Ma Yofis; as the Piamenta version of MBD’s Moshiach and Abie Rotenberg’s Ilan Ilan. As for the medleys, the First Dance is plenty of fun, and the Carlebach Medley has that awesome riff from Eric Clapton’s Layla, and the Arabic Medley (again) has some great moments, but there’s a general feeling that’s altogether too contrived. However, Yossi does a brilliant job on his representation of Karduner’s Shir Lamaalot. This is a mixed-feelings album: judging by the Piamentas’ previous albums, with better production, this could have been another classic. Instead, it just sits at slightly above average.
(***) Heritage (only sold at concerts): I have no idea how many copies of this disc were made, but I picked it up at a concert at Manhattan’s Makor. It has only one song that has yet to be released anywhere else – Maya, which is a very nice guitar song. Avi’s not on it, so you know by now that it’s worth a bit less as a result. But it does have a nice version of Agadelcha. Besides that, it’s got another version of Baruch Ata, Birkat Hamazon, a version of Red House entitled “This Blue’s For You”, and David and Goliath inexplicably re-titled “James”.
(***) Heavenly Jams Band: It seems that they learned from the mistakes of Live in NYC. The production quality here is FAR beyond the NYC album, and with the brilliance of guest musician Oteil Burbridge of the Allman Brothers, there’s some really good music here. This album was not created (solely) for the Jewish market, as it only includes four out of nine Jewish songs. The rest, while great performances, are not Jewish – a few Hendrix retreads and some of Burbridge’s stuff. This is a very good jam album, but it’s mostly not Jewish. And… yeah, you know. Avi’s not on it.
(****) Yehiyu L’ratzon: After too long, finally the Piamentas came out with a regular studio album. Firstly, welcome back Avi! But not nearly enough – it seems that he was given spots almost after the album was more or less put together; unlike their other albums, where he was an equal presence to Yossi. But this is another great album, not quite as great as 1990 or The Way You Like It, but equal to Big Time. This time, the Piamentas take a back-up vocal role to Naftali Kalfa, who does a pretty good job. The best moments on the CD, in my take, are the Isaac Bitton (of Raya Mehemna) songs Az Yashir and Keil Adon, as well as Ki Lo al Halechem. Knowing that Bitton and Piamenta have known each other for many years, you wonder why they hadn’t collaborated together earlier; their sound is authentic Sefardic, and really tight. The blues Shir Lamaalot is a tremendous production, and the other rip offs here (Sound of Silence/Va’ani Tefilati; Adon Olam/I Walk the Line) are nicely done. I love the cover art, but I wish the name of the album could have been as creative as some of their others. But those are just minor details. One last thing – Gad Elbaz’s Avinu Malkeinu does not belong on this album. Wrong genre, and it’s totally out of place and out of character.
(****) Bridging the Gap…Live!: Out of the three live albums, this one would have to be the best. The quality of the recording, as well as the quality of the accompanying musicians is way above the other albums. Oteil Burbridge is joined by his brother Kofi – on flute, no less – as well as members of the Dereck Trucks Band. Another advantage is that they don’t try to get too cute with the vocals – they just let Yossi do his thing, without trying to back him up with others. The disadvantages are: 1. Only 6 songs, and all retreads, besides for the blues classic (and obviously not Jewish) As Time Goes Passing By. However, the unbelievable version of Agadelcha goes on for an incredible 18:30, and Mitzvah for 16:39. It’s obvious they were enjoying themselves. 2. As for the flute, I’m glad it’s there, but it ain’t Avi. Kofi is very, very good, but he doesn’t have the innate relationship with Yossi. The final point about this album is that if you’ve heard Yossi’s jamming on other albums, you generally know where he’s going. However, here he generally goes further into the jam sessions than in other recordings that are available.
You’ve seen me kvetching about when Yossi performs without Avi. Well, I can kvetch just as much about when Avi performs without Yossi! Avi has two solo albums, which I’ll review without getting involved in any of Avi’s personal views:
(***) Simchat Hageulah: In this rock/disco album, Avi has a few really nice songs. Production, however is low – had the sound quality been ratcheted up a few notches, this would be a really nice album. The best song on the album is, by far, Kalu Kol Hakitzim – later used by Metallish. The dreamy disco-ish Abba Chazarti is fairly unique, and the instrumental HaRebbe MiLubavitch is very nice as well. Avi’s attempt at rocking up Carlebach’s Esa Einai is forced, to put it mildly, but his work on Yisrael Betach BaHashem works better. A final critique – in the absence of Yossi, Avi relied too much on the synth.
(****) Pedutainu Tatzmiach: Musically, this is a better album than Pedutianu Taztmiach. It has a few klezmer numbers that Avi pulls off nicely (Badeken, Bulger). Avi’s production of Tzlil V’zemer’s Hinei Anochi is virtually flawless – a beautiful piece. Both rock songs, Mei’ein and Od Yishama, badly needed Yossi – but I liked the ideas he was working on. To me, three songs make this relatively unknown CD a worthwhile acquisition: Firstly, Le’atid Lavo – a stunning song, with a truly beautiful arrangement. It starts off as an instrumental and ends as A Cappella. Secondly, Cuando/Shalom Aleichem – I think Avi and his guest soloist Gadi Zarbib did a really nice job presenting this classic Ladino melody. And finally, the Kurdish song Inshalla is unique and is a very fun listening experience. Again, had Yossi joined him, especially on Inshalla, this would be a top class album.
Tachlis: The Piamentas are like wild horses – incredible power, but they need good production. Sometimes they have it, sometimes they don’t. Not only that, but the fact that they have “wasted” studio time on so many concept albums, rather than straight music albums, is frustrating. The fact that they also repeated so many songs so many times, is also frustrating. They have so much talent – it ought to be used properly! But the fact remains that the Piamentas have produced albums that are far and away some of the best albums in Jewish music today.
Best album: The Way You Like It
Best Flute Based Song: Leshana Haba’ah
Best Guitar Based Song: Od Yishama
Best improv jam session: Agadelcha, from Bridging the Gap
Best Rip-off: Asher Bara
Best Sefardic Zemer: Chabibi or Lecha Dodi
Best Chassidic Niggun: A Gut Yohr, on Songs of the Rebbes