Various Artists

The Jewish Songbook: The Heart & Humor of a People

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The Jewish Songbook is the brainchild of Brooks Arthur, a veteran record producer whose long string of hits stretches back to the heyday of Brill Building pop. For years Arthur conceived of recording contemporary takes on popular and traditional Jewish songs, and once he found a willing label to green-light the project he rounded up an impressive cast that includes artists as diverse as Barbra Streisand, the Manhattan Transfer, Herb Alpert, Adam Sandler (who plays it straight on his "Hine Ma Tov," sharing the spotlight with Cantor Marcelo Gindlin), Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, Theodore Bikel, and Lainie Kazan to carry out his ideas. The repertoire exposes the range of styles that fall under the catchall umbrella of "Jewish music," but it's what Arthur does with the songs that makes the project such a mitzvah. There's a solemnity to much of it, but not always: Jason Alexander might have been expected to treat "Shake Hands with Your Uncle Max," an old one by the late parodist Allan Sherman, with levity. Instead, he and his accompanists turn the song around into a serious treatise on the value of family. "Hatikvah," as close as the Jewish people have to an official anthem, on the other hand, is treated by Marvin Hamlisch and Kenny Karen with the absolute reverence it commands, as is Neil Sedaka's rendition of "My Yiddishe Momme." With contributing musicians as talented as Max Weinberg, Dave Koz, klezmer clarinetist Andy Statman, and Alpert fleshing out his concepts, Brooks Arthur's tribute to Jewish musical culture is anything but meshuggah.

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