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may / june 2007:

Musical Notes
A look at a classical violinist with a pitch-perfect name, Ms. Winehouse, Mr. Y Love, Heedhoosh, the klezmer band from Cracow, Mickey Avalon and the artist formerly known as 50 Shekel.

By Mordechai Shinefield

Jew to Be Proud Of: Joshua Bell

Being a classically trained violinist may seem like the least likely instrument to play if you’re trying to seem cool or pick up the ladies, but if you’re Joshua Bell you’ve somehow figured out a way to be the hippest fiddler on the roof. The boyish looking Bell (he’s actually 39-years-old) recently received the coveted Avery Fisher Prize in New York’s Lincoln Center which came along with $75,000. And even though he’s already released more than 30 CDs, Sony Classical has rushed a new two-CD compilation called (appropriately enough) The Essential Joshua Bell so music lovers everywhere who’ve never heard of the two-time Grammy winner can take a crash course in all things Bell.

The farm-raised Indiana native plays more than 200 international bookings per year, and makes a point to routinely meet hundreds of fans after each appearance. Bell’s parents first knew their son was a musical prodigy when they found him strumming rubber bands that he’d stretched across his dresser’s handles.

And soon Bell will be moving into the other side of classical music. “I do believe the people who are the most immortal are the composers,” he explains. “The man on the street, he knows who Beethoven is, he knows who Mozart is. And I’d like to compose. And maybe even in 100, 200 years, there’ll be a few people who still, for some reason, have a recording of mine.” — Benyamin Cohen

Amy Winehouse: Back to Black

Here’s the story: British Jewish girl goes bad — smokes pot, drinks too much alcohol, refuses to go to “Rehab,” cops publicly to manic-depressive disorder and anorexia, and then releases Back to Black. No wonder blogs like Jewschool are obsessing over her debut. Cut away the drama, though, and Winehouse is rehashing Dusty Springfield, or maybe in her funnier moments (“Mr. and Mr. Jones”), Dorothy Parker. Producers Salaam Remi and Mark Ronson compliment Winehouse’s bluesy, soul hits nicely, but the drama-cycle is barely enough to sustain 11 songs, let alone a career. Maybe it’s time to reconsider rehab, Amy.

Aviad Cohen: Hooked on the Truth

The artist formally known as 50 Shekel shocked the religious world when he abandoned traditional Judaism and became a card carrying member of Jews for Jesus. Now he finally has an album documenting his change of heart, and it’s a surprisingly powerful musical document. At times it becomes preachy, the conversion-bias of J4J showing. Other times, though, it’s a gospel hip-hop album following in the heavy footsteps of DMX. His autobiographical tracks (“Hooked on the Truth”) feel as raw and pained as an exposed nerve. He’s a world away from his 50 Cent parody persona. It’s a shame he had to leave traditional Judaism to do it.

Y Love and Yuri Lane: Count It

If you’re a religious Jew who doesn’t listen to musical instruments during the seven weeks of mourning between the festivals of Passover and Shavuot, a healthy diet of acapella albums has become as inevitable to you as matzah constipation. Luckily, Count It abandons the whiney voices and handclapping that makes Jewish acapella so bland. Though you probably won’t mistake it for top 40 hip-hop, the beatboxing is serviceable and Y Love’s seasonal lyrics (“Miracles infinite, ten of the plagues / Mass revelation, foundation of faith.”) give the project some context. Still, making the best Jewish acapella album ever is like writing a killer Christian rock single — you’re preaching to a limited audience. If you’re in that audience, though, Count It is the best thing to happen to you this holiday season.

Heedoosh: Meumkah Delibah

If Delibah sounds like someone mashed-up 1990s Seattle grunge with psalms, that’s because Heedoosh is equal parts Alice in Chains and liturgy — though not as dark as the former, and not as reverent as the latter. Album opener “Etz Hayim” and third track “Lev Tahor” are the spotlights. Unfortunately, they can’t sustain the energy, and the last bunch of songs sound like standard Jewy fare. Ultimately, the album documents a band living in two worlds — and trying to satisfy both. It doesn’t gel.

Cracow Klezmer Band: Remembrance

The Cracow Klezmer Band was always more Bruno Schultz than horah. The Polish quartet evoked forgotten shtetls and vanishing culture, producing the eulogies of European klezmer. In Remembrance, the latest and last album from the now dissolved CKB, they eulogize themselves. “The Prayer” is a fuzzy, dub influenced track complete with echoes and slowly played instrumentals. “Klezmer Rhapsody” quickly runs through some classic klezmer tropes as though the band was dancing itself to death. After this live album, CKB became the Bester Quartet. What that means for the band’s haunting musical memories is unclear, but at the moment, Remembrance provides one final dance.

Mickey Avalon: Self Titled

The subject of hustler/rapper Mickey Avalon’s 11 songs is his “Kosher Salami,” which tells you how Avalon’s Judaism is intricately linked to chutzpah, sex, and consumption. Ostensibly about turning tricks in LA, his gritty hip-hop beats and a druggy droning flow turn this album into a treatise on decadence and divinity. On “Waiting to Die,” Avalon, whose real name is Yeshe Perl, curses out God. As the CBGB-bathroom stall sound indicates, Avalon has lived a hard knock life. Maybe not as hard as his grandparents (Holocaust survivors), but when he raps, “All my friends and all my lovers are dead,” it’s hard not to suffer along.

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