By Y.S. Haber/EVOTVUSA@GMAIL.COM
About 2 years ago my wife and I married off the first of our five sons. About half way into the first dance set (aka the ‘Od Yishoma’ set), I detached myself from the dancing to track down some guests that I wanted to join in the simcha — even if it meant tearing them away from the Blackberrys/iPhones. (In the interest of full disclosure, after 20 minutes of dancing I also seriously needed a break to catch my breath, but that’s not important now)
As I made my way through the outer perimeter of the crowd, I found one of those guests – a client/friend I know for over 20 years named “Brian”. After making it over to Brian (despite the entreaties of numerous people who were kind enough to point out that as the Choson’s father I shouldn’t be heading away from the inner circle but towards it), I asked him how he was enjoying the dancing (my subtle way of inviting him to join). Despite being a thoroughly ‘secular’ Jew, Brian has shown me over the years that he has a “Pintele Yid” — and then some, which is why his response was in retrospect less than surprising – “It’s a great party, but when’s the band going to play more of those Jewish tunes like they did when they started?”
What made his question both pointed and poignant was the fact that the band was in fact playing Jewish tunes (and had been throughout the first set), but to Brian’s ears those “latest and greatest” Jewish hits were lacking the “Jewish” that was there during Od Yishoma and Yosis—the songs which opened the set.
No, the preceding isn’t an indictment on the state of Jewish music in 5772, nor is it a statement regarding how today’s simcha bands interpret these songs during live performances (more often than not they’re simply “covering” the recorded version as that’s the style/sound most familiar to the crowd).
The reason I opened this review with “Brian’s Song,” was because aside from the fact that it struck a chord (!) with me, it’s also just one more reason that makes Sheya Mendlowitz’s “Big Time”/Alter Heim Wedding Album a “must own” for fans of real Jewish music…and real Jewish music fans.
BIG TIME ALTER HEIM…EVERYTHING OLD IS NEW AGAIN.
Ask any Jewish music aficionado “What makes Sheya Mendlowitz Sheya Mendlowitz?” and odds are that the responses will be equal parts “vision” and “ears.”
Vision as in giving us Avraham Fried, HASC, The Event and countless other Jewish music “icons,” and “ears” as in the ability to hear a new song and then match it with a particular performer as if it was composed with them in mind.
…Though vision and ears are just two thirds of the Mendlowitz Magic, because there’s actually a third part that’s every bit as impressive – his encyclopedic knowledge of Jewish music. Chassdic, Yeshivish, Choral, instrumental, ‘One Hit Wonders” to major brand name superstars, Sheya is a walking database of, well, everything.
It was this knowledge that led him to choosing an obscure Boruch Chait tune as the opening track for a certain singer’s debut album. The song? Keyl Hahados, The singer? Avraham Fried. The result? Jewish music history.
And lucky for us, it’s this very same knowledge — and understanding of what people like to listen to (even if they don’t know it yet) that’s at the core of Big Time/Alter Heim.
Why? Because the tunes Sheya is resurrecting are undeniably, unabashedly Jewish, ‘Jewish Music.” Case in point, the Bobover classic Tzahali V’roni which is part of the first dance set — a set that is best described as the musical equivalent of a complex, well crafted wine with so much “fruit and flavor” that everyone can appreciate it.
So why the wine metaphor? Well as any wine buff will tell you, the really good wines are those with ‘many layers” — just when you think you have it “pegged,” along comes a “burst” of fruit or nuance of spice that takes the experience to the next level.
Ditto with the opening set on this album (and every set for that matter). As it’s a simcha album, it opens with the requisite simcha staple “Od Yishoma” — great energy, nice “leibidig” feel, great sound and orchestrations (more on those later), Od Yishoma “sets the tone” and takes you to the Epstein Brother’s classic yet current “Kazatzke,” from there the always popular Karney Yeshorim — another current classic well executed that after a brief interlude/intro goes into Uva Litziyon (the interludes/intros are my only gripe with this album as for me they sometimes represent as “speed bump” that interrupts the energy of the medley)…ok so we’re seriously into the first set and Sheya’s 4 for 4 solid, stuff, great listening, not over/underdone, choir vocals are “spot on” throughout…you (the listener) are settled in for what will obviously be an enjoyable musical ride.
WHERE THE SONGS ARE THE SURPRISES
Then it happens. Like that well crafted wine that ‘tells you” via a surprise ‘burst’ of fruit or spice that its not just another dry red (or white), Sheya brings on T’zhali U’vroni a early 70’s wedding favorite that thanks to this album is undoubtedly destined for a comeback.
If this was a typical “song by song” simcha album review, you’d be seeing the phrase “undoubtedly destined for a comeback” throughout this piece, because the fact is that it’s just one of the many classics that are being (depending on the age of the listener) introduced/reintroduced. But as this isn’t a typical simcha album (who else closes out a dance set with a high energy version of “Vihi Beshurun Melech?), a “typical” review would be an insult to the countless hours and efforts that resulted in an album that’s going to be a “game changer” for the Simcha album category — much like the now classic “What a Wedding” series (conceived and produced by Sheya as well) and (going a bit further back) Suki with a Touch of Ding (which made “The Munsters” theme part of many a simcha and more importantly, introduced us to the talents of Suki Berry — who also arranged this album.
Anyway speaking of songs destined for comebacks, expect to start hearing way more of the Chaim Berlin’s classic “Vosik”, Moshe Laufer’s “Chaim Shetehay,” “Yankele Talmid’s nigun,” the “Bobover March,” Rabbi Moshe “Mickey” Shur’s “Sameach,” “U’Vchein Tzadikim” and others — “all coming soon to a simcha near you.”
What makes this album unique isn’t just the fact that Sheya — together with the album’s arranger Rabbi Suki Berry has revived these formerly retired hits, but also the fact that they seamlessly work together with the newer tunes to create an overall sound that regardless of style or tempo is authentically Jewish in the truest, most timeless sense of the word. In other words, no worries about confusing “Brian the Client.”
If you’re thinking that not just any singers or musicians could execute this vision the way Sheya & Suki imagined it, you’d be right. Which is why the talent roster features names like MBD, Lipa, Dovid Gabay, Shloime Gertner, The Mezamrim Choir, The Moishe Kraus Choir and Israeli clarinet virtuoso Chilik Frank (who delivers the perfect balance between classic Klezmer and classic post-Klezmer era Simcha) — all accompanied by the one band that has this musical style “living” in their DNA—Freilach Orchestra.
As none of these performers are “wanting” for projects, I’d have to say that the reason they got involved with this (aside from the opportunity to work with Sheya) is because it’s not a typical “music for the masses” album. This is an album with real “hartz”– one with a sound and arrangements that won’t be mistaken for a Broadway or Vegas-like production. Close your eyes while listening to MBD on Mi Adir and you’ll feel like he’s singing at a Chupa — not a recording studio, listen to Shloime Gertner’s Be-ein Meylitz (originally composed for Yigal Calek’s London School Of Jewish Song Album by Shloime’s fellow Londonite Geoffrey Cramer) and you’re hearing a soaring side of Gertner not captured on other albums or live performances. Experience Lipa & Moishe Kraus Choir’s performance on K’neses Yisroel — a song whose Yiddish lyrics bring to mind the poignant perfection of classic Yom-Tov Ehrlich — and you can see why Lipa’s as impressive a song writer as he is a singer.
And, while you’re at it, prepare to be amazed at the dynamics of Dovid Gabay’s vocals throughout the project. As this album draws on a time when “simcha was simcha” (regardless if it was Yeshivish, Chassidish, Heymish, or any combination thereof, Gabay’s the perfect choice to not just recapture that style and sound — but refresh it for today’s Simcha music fans as well. Small wonder he’s one of the most in-demand simcha performers out there.
Whilst on the subject of in-demand Simcha performers, “Big Time” has not one but two musical backbones.
The vocal backbone is the internationally acclaimed Mezamrim Choir. Regardless if they’re singing lead or backup, their harmonies and vocals are never overbearing and always the perfect accompaniment which round out whatever tune they’re featured on.
The album’s “musical” backbone is the aforementioned Freilach Orchestras — a perfect…if not brilliant choice for this album because in many ways they are what the music on this album represents.
For those of you who don’t know, Freilach — which was founded by Avremy Shreiber and Mendy Hershkowitz, is comprised of members of the Monroe (and similar) communities. While they’re all studied and polished musicians, they’re also of that rare breed that can “take what’s on the page” and “own it” — their performance style on this album showcases that ability from start to finish.
Listen to how delicately Shreiber’s simple snare work augments the lush, cinematic strings during the Chupa selections then how he “digs’ into the dance sets — never overpowering the horns or vocals but driving them — and the rest of the rhythm section forward by not just keeping the beat — but also providing the heart.
Though, if you’ve already heard/experienced Freilach, then you know exactly what I mean because their name says it all — and in way more ways than one.
Of course a great band is that much greater with a great arranger, which is why Sheya reached out to Suki Berry for this project. Suki’s arrangements — no matter how “big” — never “overpower” the tune or take the listener’s focus away from the song “as a whole,” if anything, they have a bit more of a simpler more ‘retro” sparse sound — one where the melody is always front and center and never “masked” (as is often the case today) by ambitious brass, reeds, guitars — and the other “madmen” of the music business. In short, the album is the perfect balance of precise studio “polish” and high energy simcha — all flawlessly recorded, mixed and mastered to create a listening experience that will both take you back — and move you forward at the same time.
Speaking of moving, Sheya’s moving album dedication gave me pause — followed by one more reason for kudos. As you’ll see from the liner notes (and the rest of the strikingly designed cover art created by Eli Kaufman of KZ Creative), he thanks the Taubenfeld family of Sameach Music. Sameach Music was founded by Izzy Taubenfeld A’H — an individual, who like the songs on this album, was a timeless classic, a throwback to the “old school” era of a when a handshake and a word meant more than any contract. While Izzy’s demise reverberated throughout the Jewish music industry, the “standards and practices” he built Sameach on still continue thanks to the commitment of his brother, Benny, who co-produced this project with Sheya and in the process brought some of that Sameach Signature Mojo” to create something truly unique.
In other words, this isn’t a “once or twice” album — as in an album that after a few listens gets relegated to a shelf or obscure playlist. Going back to the wine metaphor, this is an album where every listen will introduce you to a nuance or element you missed the time before. It may be vocal, it may be instrumental it may even be in the recording and how the drums or clarinet sounds…but like the songs on it, Big Time/Alter Heim is one album whose listening experience will only get better with age. And regardless if you’re hearing the songs on it for the first time — or the first time in years, get ready for a big time good time…courtesy of Sheya Mendlowitz and Big Time/Alter Heim.
…And yes, I’ve already sent “Brian The Client” his very own copy.
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