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Hacking the Holidays: Obscure and Unusual Albums from Online Stores

By Published: December 2, 2004
More world music than jazz, this nevertheless makes this list through the sheer quality of various a capella, instrumental and percussion selections.

The Kwanzaa Album features Women Of The Calabashi, a trio who have performed African and Latin music for more than 20 years using a wide range of traditional instruments ranging from thumb pianos to steel drums. The album features 16 selections, often accompanied by a brief introduction explaining its significance.

Their diverse range of instrumentation takes center stage on songs like "Ituri Forest" and "Chemutengure," where various repetitive phrases get the mix-match-and-evolve treatment. Their standalone vocals on songs like "MYA Si Grei" are graceful and elegant rather than raw intensity, but for that tune into the African drumming history lessons of songs like "Saraka."

This isn't easy listening music by any means, but is consistent and restrained enough for general listening in settings where syrupy carols aren't an absolute must. A great history lesson for those who wanting a different sort of holiday story.

A Kwanzaa album I was hoping to find, but no luck: Archie Shepp's Kwanzaa. The saxophonist and pianist leads an ensemble of serious jazz heavyweights in this 1969 album that's gotten some critical acclaim, including a finalist as one reviewer's top albums from the decade. But efforts to find a copy from sites ranging from eMusic to eBay came up empty. Those wanting a sample, however, can purchase the reissued The Way Ahead (available at iTunes). This is a landmark fusion album for him featuring two bonus tracks, "New Africa" and "Bakai," from Kwanzaa totaling 23 minutes. Based solely on those, it appears to be an impressive combination of free jazz, early fusion and world music, but a very busy one - this definitely isn't for tree trimming unless your idea of relaxing music is Ornette Coleman pairing up with John Coltrane.

Shirim Klezmer Orchestra
Klezmer Nutcracker
Newport Classic

Klezmer Nutcracker is a one-trick pony extended to album length, offering exactly what the title promises. Almost everyone will find it entertaining for one or two songs, but its staying power rests largely on how much listeners will be attracted to, as a promo puts it, "the zany wit of Spike Jones with the class and craft of Duke Ellington."

That's not to say there's a lack of artistry here - the Shirim Klezmer Orchestra liberally tweeks Tchaikovsky's ballet with all sorts of Hebrew touches, right down to the renamed "Dance Of the Latkes Queens" (instead of Sugar Plum Fairies). Klezmer fans will more likely than not be captivated, as will a good number of Tchaikovsky listeners who don't need to take him seriously.

The seven musicians are all tight and there's never a question about the quality of their playing. The only letdown comes on compositions that aren't frenetic by nature, such as "Waltz Of The Ruggelah," where the incessant pace and whimsical instrumentation makes it a bit hard to swallow musically.

Holiday music makes up only the first half of the album. Classic klezmer and interpretations of Mahler, Brahms and Enesco are featured on the latter part.

Potential buyers are advised to go to a site like where you can sample a minute of each track. That may be enough to satisfy the merely curious, but it also will likely draw in a few who might otherwise pass it by.

Some other Jewish music of note: Steve Levin's Aleinu Leshabeyach - A Jazz Service features the vocalist in a straightforward but quality live performance of 14 Jewish prayers in Hebrew and English, backed by a choir and traditional jazz instrumentation. The Adler Trio is an innovative harmonica trio whose Israeli Music is both authentic and a quality collaboration in harmonizing, although some tacky backing rhythms are a distraction. Ensemble Techelet's And I Will Hope For Him and The World To Come are closer to New Age than jazz, but the small nontraditional ensembles perform some improvisational stretches rare in this genre (one song on the latter album is nearly 50 minutes long). Finally, it'd be neglectful not to mention vibraphonist Terry Gibbs' Plays Jewish Melodies In Jazztime , previously reviewed at AAJ by Elliott Simon, who calls it "a significant historical nexus that extends the past into the future."

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