It has been a while since we’ve had a new album of Jewish music from Sam Glaser. I’m happy to say it was worth the wait.
Like many, I first discovered Sam at a CAJE conference in the early 90s. It’s fair to say that, as a pianist myself, I was drawn to his performance naturally. However, it wasn’t just his skills as a pianist, vocalist, and songwriter that drew me to him. It was Sam, himself. He loves what he does, and it shows. He loves crowds, and he loves singing with them as much as he enjoys singing for them.
This is evidenced by the prevalence of anthem songs on many of his recordings and at his concerts. Songs that just scream “sing along with me.” It’s also evident on his albums like “The Sings We Sing" and “The Songs We Sing Volume 2” on which Sam performs Israeli and American classic from the Jewish repertoire.
“The Promise” is classic Glaser from start to finish. For some artists, formulaic would be a pejorative, a criticism. Sam succeeds in this where even some of the best and brightest songwriters in the music field fail. Yes, Sam utilizes elements of “music factory” style that started years ago in Nashville and Hollywood and has taken over the music industry (and he is far from alone in this among Jewish artists.) I’m not sure what Sam’s secret is, but even though I believe he’s often using formulaic songwriting, there’s enough variance from one song to another that was written in a similar mode. His craftsmanship is on a level above the pablum that Disney and most of the music industry feeds the world’s teens and adults on an almost daily basis. Many of the songs may be anthems, and designed to be sing-able, but Sam doesn’t sell the talent of his audience short, and sing-able doesn’t mean simple. His melodic lines can be challenging, and his lyrics truly thoughtful. There’s an underlying complexity to his work and that may be his secret.
Here’s the downside of that: several of his previous albums will provide you with that same Sam Glaser fix. When you’re craving those Sam Glaser chord progressions, sing-able anthem-esque lyrics, and infectious arrangements, you can pick any one of several of Sam’s classic albums. Not all of Sam’s albums are the same – I don’t want to give that impression. Sam’s done some truly interesting projects over the past two decades, in a variety of styles and genres. Truth be told, those projects outnumber what many think of as those in his classic style like “Hineni,” “A Day in the Life,” or “Across the River.”
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that Sam is also a great engineer and producer, and that always shows on his projects.
There are two songs on this project that I would criticize. First is the country-style “Simple Song for Israel.” It’s a cover of the Bobby Darin song “Simple Song for Freedom.” The classic country setting is so obnoxiously stereotypical, that I think even Bobby Darin couldn’t avoid deviating stylistically a bit near the end-and it was a bit of an odd transition in the original and in this parody/cover. It’s a not a bad song, but it is just a wee bit out of place. The album’s final cut, a rocked-up studio version of “Hatikvah” left me a little flat. Do something really different and controversial like Hendrix did with the Star Spangled Banner, and maybe you can get my attention, but this one sort of felt like album-filler to me. It may be coincidental, but both of those songs were done by Sam on commission, the first for Aish, and the Hatikvah for Babaganewz. So I’ll cut him some slack on these two. On my scale, if that’s the worst I have to say, then this album is still by far and away a recommended buy!
Perhaps it is because we’re both pianists that I always enjoyed performing and teaching his songs for others. I think we’d both agree that what comes forth through our fingers is prayer. It has been a while since I’ve seen Sam Glaser perform live. I hope to rectify that. I know that hearing him sing, and singing along myself in concert with the songs from The Promise will secure for them a place in my heart as happened with so many of his earlier projects.
If you’re already a Sam Glaser fan, you’ll want to buy “The Promise.” If Sam is new to you, “The Promise” is as good an introduction to his music as any. (There is also his greatest hits album, “Inspired.”) Be sure, however, to also introduce yourself to other sides of Sam’s music, like “The Presence” (which I think may be his personal favorite, as well as mine) the children’s CDs “Lullabies and Jitterbugs” and “Soap Soup,” the intriguing “Edge of Light” and the many other fascinating projects that have spring forth from this mensch of a performer.
©2013 by Adrian A. Durlester