Friday, December 29, 2017

In Review: Joey Weisenberg "The Torah of Music" & Joey Weisenberg and the Hadar Ensemble Nigunim Vol. VI: “By the Waters of Babylon”

I first came to know Joey Weisenberg when I heard him play a CD release event for klezmer clarinetist Michael Winograd. He played a beautiful mandolin improvisation that showed his deep roots in Klezmer and traditional Jewish modalities. So, a few years back, when I heard that Joey was writing and recording his own nigunim, I kind of expected to hear neo-klezmer melodies/arrangements. A YouTube search revealed that I was wrong. And so, I've checked in with Joey's output from time to time and followed along with his prolific output.

I am just home from a remarkable evening with Joey Weisenberg and the Hadar Ensemble. The event -- performance would be the wrong word -- was beautiful. The room was set up in circles, with the ensemble in the middle and rows of chairs circling around them. And, rather than perform, Joey led the room in singing (and listening) together. I was impressed and moved. Joey has the remarkable ability to get 300 or so people singing together in a way that is inclusive, respectful, and powerful. Rather than the "look at me" approach so many Jewish music presenters have, Joey graciously shares the spotlight with the members of the Hadar Ensemble, and brings everyone in the room along for the ride. Of course, I'm sure it helps that 150 of the people there were participants in Machon Hadar's spiritual singing seminar which took place this week in NYC, and so were familiar with his nigunim. However, the feeling I had was that this would work pretty much the same if no one in the room, apart from the ensemble, knew his songs. It was that powerful.

This event, as well as Joey's book and recordings, all share a purpose. That is, they all seek to bring people in through music, to encourage group singing and listening, and connection with Judaism through music. It'd be a mistake to review one of these things separately, as they are all part of the same organic whole.

I wound up at this event when I received an invite to review Joey's new book "The Torah of Music" and attend this event marking its release. The sweetener was the copy of the latest Hadar Ensemble album "By The Waters of Babylon", which includes "Shochein Ad", a tune that I've been singing/playing since I first heard it. In fact, I wound up singing an acapella Bar Mitzvah in the city, and when the cantor broke into this melody, I was the only one in the "frum" group who knew it. The entire congregation, on the other hand, joined along immediately.

A little about the music. I mentioned that it wasn't klezmer. However, it is deeply Jewish. I'd describe it as American Jewish music, deeply rooted in Jewish and American folk traditions. If Stephen Foster wrote Jewish music, it might have sounded like this. Bits of Americana, Chassidus, and even some slight Carlebach influences blend together in an organic new yet mature sound that sounds much older than it is. The albums -- this is the sixth in the series -- are all recorded live in an old shul in Brooklyn where Joey served as Baal Tefilah for seven years. Buy the album to support the artist, but then watch the album on YouTube to see how involved everyone is as these tracks were laid down. Highlights include the afore-mentioned "Shochein Ad" which begins with a beautiful vocal taksim by Rabbi Yosef Goldman. I'm also partial to "Keil Adon" which features Deborah Saks Mintz, as well as Yigdal, which in Joey's setting is a six-minute-plus Americana-infused melody that really gets at the meaning of the words. In general, Joey's songs do that, and if there weren't words repeated in the song, I'd be using "Shochen Ad" in my shul. The whole album is excellent and well worth getting. It's worth checking out the earlier ones as well. Amazon has the album here:

Which brings me to the book... As with his recordings, Joey seeks to empower the kahal to come along with him on his musical journey. The book is his attempt to do just that, sharing Torah thoughts about song, the power of music, the importance of listening, and more. Especially notable is that Joey includes a large open library of texts with translations -- roughly half the book -- so that the reader can join in the process of exploring what Judaism has to say about music and personally engage with them. The 179 texts range include pesukim from Tanach, quotes from Mishna, Gemara, and Midrash, to writings by Rishonim, Mystical and Halachik Writings, Chassidic Torah, and more.

Before getting to the open library though, Joey discusses the connection between music and prophecy, the power of music, the importance of silence, and perhaps most importantly, the importance of listening and of joining together through song. In a gentle self-effacing way, through use of sources and personal vignettes, Joey shares his understanding of and belief in the power of music. The book is a useful resource for anyone interested in the power of music and Judaism.

Amazon has the book here: Joey's approach serves as a model that anyone interested in creating serious, deep Jewish music should be aware of and be inspired by. He unites intellect and emotion to create warm, deep, and friendly inclusive Jewish music, and that's something we can use a lot more of.