The Arty Semite

Monday Music: Sounds of the Fathers

By Matthew Kassel

  • Print
  • Share Share
Geoff Smith

At first, I didn’t know how to listen to “The Pirkei Avot Project, Vol. 1.”

Taking eight short excerpts from Pirkei Avot, a compendium of rabbinical aphorisms, jazz guitarist Amanda Monaco creates a wise and playful interpretation of some serious material. She uses popular passages, such as Hillel’s saying, “If I am not for me, who will be? If I am for myself alone, what am I? And if not now, when?” as well as lesser-known teachings such as, “There is nothing more becoming a person than silence” and “Be a tail to lions rather than a head to foxes.”

As I listened, I wondered how the music conveyed the ideas behind the text. Even though I had translations of the Hebrew and Aramaic words, to me they registered mostly as sound. And because this is a jazz album, it’s the sound that matters most.

Israeli singer Ayelet Rose Gottlieb interprets the lyrics as though language were an instrument. The longest passage on the album is only seven lines and the shortest is just one. Singing a single line for an entire song sounds straining, but it works here. Gottlieb uses, to great effect, the vocal techniques that Semitic languages allow for — hissing and aspirating and cooing.

Monaco — who released “The Pirkei Avot Project” independently with donations from Rockethub, a crowd funding website — has also assembled a sturdy quartet with Daphna Mor on recorders and ney (a Middle Eastern flute), Sean Conly on bass and Satoshi Takeishi on floor percussion. Takeishi doesn’t use a bass drum and switches back and forth between using brushes and his hands, giving the music a light, floating quality.

In contrast, Monaco’s presence on guitar is barely felt. Her solos are short and unobtrusive, her accompaniment sparse. But this works in her favor as a leader. She lets Gottlieb’s voice come to the front on haunting —and sometimes jokey — melodies. The track “If Not Now, When” is a plaintive rumination with a beautiful ney solo. “Average, Peasant, Saintly, Scoundrel” is jumpy and goofy and theatrical with a stuttering rhythm.

Toward the end of the gypsy-ish “Now Is Eternal,” the music cuts out and Gottlieb enters unaccompanied, slyly elongating syllables in rhythm. Takeishi enters on brushes, and then Mor, singing — basically speaking — at a whisper, forming a weird and delicate braid of sound.

I didn’t always know what they were saying, but rarely have I heard fricatives and obstruents and sibilants expressed with such convincing intimacy and emotion.

Watch Amanda Monaco play ‘Average, Peasant, Saintly, Scoundrel’ at the 92Y Tribeca:


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Satoshi Takeishi, Pirkei Avot Project, Pirkei Avot, Music, Matthew Kassel, Jazz, Ayelet Rose Gottlieb, Sean Conly, Amanda Monaco

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • Getting ready for Seder? Chag Sameach! http://jd.fo/q3LO2
  • "We are not so far removed from the tragedies of the past, and as Jews sit down to the Seder meal, this event is a teachable moment of how the hatred of Jews-as-Other is still alive and well. It is not realistic to be complacent."
  • Aperitif Cocktail, Tequila Shot, Tom Collins or Vodka Soda — Which son do you relate to?
  • Elvis craved bacon on tour. Michael Jackson craved matzo ball soup. We've got the recipe.
  • This is the face of hatred.
  • What could be wrong with a bunch of guys kicking back with a steak and a couple of beers and talking about the Seder? Try everything. #ManSeder
  • BREAKING: Smirking killer singled out Jews for death in suburban Kansas City rampage. 3 die in bloody rampage at JCC and retirement home.
  • Real exodus? For Mimi Minsky, it's screaming kids and demanding hubby on way down to Miami, not matzo in the desert.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.