Thursday, September 3, 2009

Review: Erik Contzuis' Teach My Lips a Blessing

Cross-posted from the Teruah Blog. Review by Jack Zaientz

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Erik Contzius - New Cantorial Music in the German Reform Style

There are other histories out there, if we know how to listen for them. Other musics that remind us of how complicated, and interesting, our trip has been and how brutally the 20th century disrupted that trip. But these histories are starting to reassert themselves. We all know about the klezmer revival, and I've written many times about reassertion of Sephardic musical culture in west, the explosion in Jewish popular and art musics, and the rise of the songleader folk pop-liturgy. Guess what..chazzanut, that great voice on the pulpit, still has it's champions and they're creating a new generation of liturgy work that is vital and compelling. And they're reconnecting current chazznut with historic traditions that have all but faded from memory in America.

Erik Contzius has a new recording, Teach My Lips a Blessing, of cantorial music in the German Reform tradition. For someone growing up in a mid-20th century Conservative American synagogue, it sounds like it could be from the moon. Shabbat prayers sung over pipe organ, backed by a large mixed choir? It's a distinctive soundscape that violates Orthodox and Conservative halacha (use of instruments on the Shabbat) and my sense of history (the role of the cantor fading as community prayer practice has become communal and participatory). But that sound!

Contzius has done something magical. This isn't the mighty voiced lion of a cantor praising and supplicating as the voice of his community. It's also not a call and response prayer leader. It's something different. Contzius has a strong clear voice, without the operatic theatrics I've heard in many cantors and cantorial recordings (If anything, his voice tends toward Broadway a bit too much at points. ) It's warm and inviting, and with the choir and organ behind him feels like he's singing both for and with the community at the same time. This is a very different sensibility than a songleader grabbing a guitar to lead a hundred congregants through an out of tune Shalom Rav. (which is a wonderful thing, too). There is a sense of leadership here, Contzius reaching out through his voice, showing us the way, and bringing us along. I don't feel the urge to sing when listening to Contzius, but I feel that his singing includes me already. While I love communal singing, there is a power to this way too.

Amazon has graciously provided us with a chance to hear some clips of Contzius recording. In particular listen to V'Shamru. I've relistened to it about a dozen times. (I get to cheat. Contzius sent me the album so I get to hear the full recording). It soars, but never so high that it leaves the choir voices behind. And that's pretty special and may help breath new life into chazzanut.

You can hear more Contzius compositions, learn more about his approach, and purchase this recording via his website or download the tracks through the Amazon player.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Review-Abby Gostein's Each Blessing

Cross-posted from the Teruah Jewish Music Blog

Review by Jack Zaeintz

Monday, August 31, 2009

Abby Gostein's "Each Blessing"

Abby GosteinI'm listening to Abby Gostein's "Each Blessing" right now. I've got a lot to say, but am not sure where to start. How do you review an album this is as much an advertisement for sheet music as a recording to be listened to? How about this....
This past Shabbat I went to Kabbalat Shabbat services at the local Reform synagogue. Not as a guest, but as a member. Yep. I'm a life-long Conservative Jew who recently became a member of a Reform synagogue. I'm not going to get into why I switched membership from the local Conservatice synagogue, it was just time for a change. (For the record, I also will be davening regularly at the local Chabbad house too). I was pretty impressed by how much traditional (by my standards) Hebrew liturgy was part of the service. I also enjoyed the contemporary English readings in the new Mishkan Tefillah. They're direct and meaningful, if a bit vague about God and Torah. Sitting there I felt recharged and happy.
When I sit back in my chair, Gostein's "Each Blessings" playing through my headphones, I'm right back there. Her gentle vocals and piano playing pick up the quiet warmth of the service and her more driving pieces are invigorating and make me want to sing along. Just right for a contemporary Reform service.
Each Blessing album cover
And that's the point of the album, right? Gostein describes it as ....
"Contemporary Jewish music, moving and accessible, with memorable melodies and riveting harmonies; prayer and blessing settings intended to be flexible in nature and easily usable by cantor or soloist, congregation and/or choir"
This isn't music for a concert, for listening to a car, or even for listening to over headphones in a comfy chair (though I've happily done the latter two already and would go to a Gostein concert if given a chance). It's for singing in a group. At synagogue. That's what the albums for. If you go to her website she's got lyric sheets ready, and if you want the sheet music, she's got it.
As long time readers might remember, I've always had mixed feelings about Reform style songleader recordings. Part of it, I'm realizing, is that since I'd never been to a service that included them it was hard to understand their natural home. Part of it, though, is that I've often found them to be underwhelming rehashes of 1970's folk-pop with shallow feel good lyrics. Gostein's album, though, manages to avoid those traps. While some nod back to the 1970's, others pick up much more current musical influences and rhythms. There's drive and passion, but it never overwhelms. It creates a sound that is timeless, not dated.
Good stuff. Really.
And an album that I'll hand off to my choir director next Friday.

* Update: Sigh. Another fact-checking goof. Abby just emailed me to let me know that while she loves the piano playing too, she can't take credit for it. Scott Leader, Jewish musician and proprietor of Southwest Studios, played piano on most of the album (including the two tracks above). Martha Mortensen Dudgeon took over the keys for the last two tracks. Dudgeon is an Austin pianist and artistic director of the Austin Chamber Ensemble. Thanks for the update Abby

For more info on Abby Gostein's "Each Blessings" check out her webpage and CD Baby. For her sheet music see OySongs and Transcontinental Music Publications.

Reviews/Reviewers Wanted

The contemporary Jewish folk/rock/pop liturgical music scene (or whatever we're going to call the Debbie Friedman to Dan Nichols to Todd Herzog and beyond genre) is blossoming with ever new recordings. We need to help ourselves get the word out, and posting reviews on this blog could be one way to do that.  If you'd like to review something (new or old) please get in touch with me ( It would be best to have reviews from reviewers of of several types:

  • those who are NOT primarily songwriters/performers/songleaders
  • those who are songleaders or music educators
  • those who are songwriters/performers/producers/publishers

There are so many new recordings out there just crying to be reviewed. Here are some suggestions:

  • Abby Gostein: Each Blessing
  • Dan Nichols & e18hteen: To the Mountains
  • Josh Nelson Project: Lift:
  • Debbie Friedman: As You Go On Your Way-Shacharit-the Morning Prayers
  • Todd Herzog: Everyday Blessings

and so much more. (Please don't be offended if I left your latest and greatest off this short list of suggestions. If you want your new project reviewed, send me a copy!)

Also, it would be nice to have all parts of the genre covered, including children's music, teen music, music for worship, adult listening, etc.

Let's all work together to help our community thrive.