Posts Tagged ‘contemporary Jewish music’

Let There Be Music

Sunday, September 27th, 2015
by Sam Glaser

I’m writing this in suburban Denver having just performed a concert where it seems like I knew every other person in the audience. The Jewish Experience pulled off one of those rare gatherings of people from all local synagogues and denominations, cleverly organized outdoors in a sunny park, thereby avoiding any one group’s fiefdom.  There was no need to bring my own band; I recruited a variety of talented local friends who have my set wired and added a pair of extraordinary Latin percussionists who volunteered their time to express their support for the Jewish community.  Since I’ve played the mile high city at least once a year for the past two decades and my alma mater, University of Colorado, Boulder is close by, I feel a sense of homecoming every time I return. I opted to extend the trip a few more days to hike, visit friends and stroll downtown Boulder.  What a thrill to enjoy perfect blue sky days on the trail, relive memories on campus and visit the “youngsters” that now inhabit my fraternity house. I enjoyed meals with old pals, jammed with the hippies on the Pearl Street Mall and lodged in a creative friend’s imaginative canyon home.

One morning I chose to sleep in, pray leisurely and to do some much needed yoga. My regimen becomes even more crucial when I am enduring cramped airline seats and beds of varying quality on the road. Colorado was my third tour stop of the week, and it was long past time for me to get on the mat.  As I did my downward dog, crescent and pigeon poses, I was listening to a touching album by one of my favorite singer-songwriter-bassists Richard Page. The music filled me with inexplicable, indescribable joy. I anticipated every phrase and sang unabashedly in my friend’s empty home.  What is it about this album that makes me so happy? I could say the same about so many of the thousands of CDs that I have in my collection. Why do they have such an impact on my psyche? How is it possible to know every beat and every lyric? Why is music so directly connected to my sense of well being? How is it that these ephemeral sound waves can transform my morning workout from drudgery to a celebration?

Here’s what I came up with on that sweet, sweaty morning. I believe that familiar music graces certain neural templates in our memory. The first time we hear any given piece, the sound traces a path in our brain much like grooves on an LP. The next time we hear those notes we have a vague memory of where the rhythms fall. And by the tenth or hundredth time that we hear that same music, every lyric, each kick drum and hi hat, every guitar lick and violin flourish, all the counterpoint and harmony oozes like dripping honey along that ever deepening synaptic path.  I concluded that the music that we love really is a part of us; the joy that we feel upon repeat listening is perhaps because in an out-of-control world our favorite albums remain predictable, reassuring and comforting.

We have a limited window of opportunity to establish deep connections with those genres we consider to be OUR music.  Our brains are more malleable when we are young. Just as it’s easier for kids to learn a foreign language or to pick up a new accent, the same is certainly true when learning a musical instrument or building repertoire.  It seems that those neural receptors calcify with age and the musical input we receive from birth until we’re in our early twenties is more profoundly engraved in our gray matter. For the rest of our lives, new music that we hear tends to pale in comparison. Much like when high school seniors view incoming ninth graders with disdain and claim the student body is quickly going downhill, we grow intolerant of the latest hits. In fact, by our mid-twenties we tend to recoil in horror to the latest “noise” on the radio. Now that I’ve hit my fifties it takes a really amazing album to penetrate my consciousness. I do listen to Top 40 radio to stay current for my studio work and to humor my kids who switch it on as soon as we’re in the car.  Keeping up with the trends is essential in my business; in the immortal words of John Lennon, “Either you grow with music or music outgrows you.”  Another reason that we may find it a challenge to incorporate new music later in life is because we have so much input filling our brains by adulthood that there’s less cranial storage space for new stimuli to make an impression. For this reason I strategically fed my unsuspecting children a steady diet of musical heroes from rock to jazz to classical and I experience unbounded mirth when they call me from college to rave about a “new” discovery from the seventies.

Many feel that music is anecdotal, not central to crucial issues in life. But do we want to live in a world where the arts are left out of our children’s STEM-based education? I teach jazz ensemble in our local high school and I have found that most of our neighborhood kids get to ninth grade without any hands-on music experience whatsoever, no memories of instrument lessons or choral performances. Music is liquid math!  Reggae band Steel Pulse said it best: “Life without music…I can’t go!”  I’d like to argue that music is one of the best media for the dissemination of universal values. Music has at its core an element of truth that is cross-cultural and international.  That’s why a hit in LA can also rise up the charts in countries around the globe.  That’s why the movie scores that allow one to have emotional engagement and thereby suspend disbelief serve their purpose worldwide.  Imagine a cheer at a baseball game, like that major arpeggio causing fans to scream, “Charge!” Contrast that with the suspenseful two notes of the Jaws theme; you hear them and start worrying about sharks, even on dry land.  We can describe a tune as happy or sad, suspenseful or romantic regardless of where we were born.

Music is the glue that binds generations and unites the nations.  I remember a U2 concert several years ago when during the messianic-flavored song One, a message appeared on the gigantic video screen for the fans of all ages to take out their cell phones.  Within moments the arena was bathed in a surreal Android  glow as the audience swayed with the moving piece.  Then we were instructed to text our names to a certain number.  Immediately the room went dark but everyone’s face lit up as they quickly texted.  Then at the climax of the song while 20,000 people were jumping ecstatically singing “One love, one blood, one life” in unison, our projected names cascaded like alphabetic confetti across the stadium walls.  I still get the chills thinking about it.  We are currently witnessing the explosion in popularity of the multi-day music festival.  Our youth are discovering oneness, peace and lovingkindness not in places of worship but in carefully manicured settings where music is the common language and catalyst for unity.

For the Jewish People, religious life without music is unthinkable.  We see music as the icing on the cake of creation. According to Jewish tradition, God is perpetually singing the world into being.  Our Tanach (bible) is replete with epic songs that punctuate the narrative.  Jubal, the inventor of the first instruments, is one of the few key characters mentioned in the first ten generations of mankind.  Vast orchestras accompanied the service in the Temple. Our prophets of yore required music to enter a transcendent realm and hear God’s voice.  Our patriarchs composed while in the fields with their livestock; our tradition maintains that King David was “hearing” their songs as he composed his Psalms.

I often wonder just where I get these songs that come to me almost nightly.  Am I hearing remnants of biblical melodies in the ether?  After an extended wedding ceremony in the Old City of Jerusalem, I had the rare opportunity to spend an hour in yechidus (one on one) with Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach.  For years I had served as his West Coast keyboardist and relished any time I was able to spend in his presence.  Underneath the arch of the ruins of the Churva Synagogue he spoke of my music and how it moved him.  He told me that I had a tremendous gift and a mamash (hugely) enormous responsibility to share it.  He then warned me that I had to be prepared for when the Mashiach would come to me and say, “Sam, how did you know all my nigunim?!”  Of course, Reb Shlomo always knew the right words to say…can you imagine a more powerful charge for a young composer?  I was told that when he left this world at the tender age of 69, he was on an airplane bound for the next gig…with my Shira album in his Walkman.

When we sing our prayers we transform our worship from lethargy to ecstasy, from stasis to action and commitment.  Find yourself a shul where they sing!  The nusach or traditional melodies of prayer are so beautifully detailed that one could conceivably travel by time machine to any prayer service in history and know if it’s a weekday, Shabbat or a holiday, if it’s morning, afternoon or evening and if you wound up davening with Sephardim or Ashkenazim.  Specific tropes accompany the public reading of our Torah and prophetic writings. We even have a melody for Torah study.  The revelation of Torah to the millions assembled at Sinai was marked by an unprecedented concert spectacular featuring mass synethesia where we “heard” the sights and “saw” the sounds.  For those who find the lack of fluency in Hebrew a barrier to Jewish prayer, the fact is that you just need to know “aye dee di di di.” In the past several hundred years we have inherited the rich tradition of Chassidic nigunim, or wordless melodies, gifts of tzadikim (righteous people) that allow for the deepest spiritual connections without lyrics getting in the way of the sentiment.

According to 16th century commentator, the Maharal of Prague, music serves the threefold purpose of the creation of mankind: to develop a connection with the divine in the form of prayer, to connect us with one another and to connect us with our own souls.  The gift of music is one of the best examples of the majesty of our neshamot (souls); our ability to compose is a miracle that baffles evolutionists and physicists.  Music allows us to perceive that the apex of achievement in life is soul achievement; that the essence of our existence is in spiritual expression rather than the physical.  As an example, we don’t go to the symphony to hear horsehair scraping catgut!  In other words, the physical realm may seem like all there is, but in truth it is the most elementary level of creation and exists to give structure to the spiritual. Another function of music is to give us a unique sense of the dimension of time in that music requires time to unfold and develop, one note requires the next to complete a musical phrase.  We can only enjoy it in the present but it requires the past for context and draws us into a spectacular future.  We also gain an appreciation of eternity through music; for example, the gifted classical composers were able to capture something from beyond, an accomplishment that never dies.  After his stroke my father-in-law might be unable to remember our names or his birthday, but can sing along with all his favorite melodies.

One of the most exciting aspects of our current technological prowess is the fact that the music of the vast span of Jewish history is now available in the form of thousands of recordings, from cantorial to klezmer to folk to good ole’ rock and roll.  Contemporary Jewish Music is experiencing a renaissance of unparalleled quality and quantity in every conceivable genre; check out to see the vast selection.  Some folks can’t abide by my new settings of liturgy, preferring the “traditional” melodies.  But I can point to King David who exhorts his progeny to engage in “shir chadash,” writing new music.  New music gives us vitality and excitement and keeps our ritual from becoming stagnant.  Whereas David’s son Solomon insisted that there is nothing new under the sun, clearly music emerges “above the sun,” in the realm of the supernatural. That said, all composers are influenced by those who have come before. I’m sometimes asked if I perform “originals” or “covers.”  I reply that no one really writes originals; composition is a more accurate term since all composers stand on the shoulders of those who have preceded us.  New music is crucial to the Jewish concept of redemption; the Talmud teaches that King Chizkiyahu was destined to be Mashiach (the messiah) but was deemed unworthy because he couldn’t sing.  According to Rabbi Natan Lopez Cardozo: “Judaism can’t be passed on without a song and a smile.”

I remain grateful for my gifts and still marvel that I am earning a living in this field for which I am so passionate.  The real credit goes to my wife who has to deal with the vicissitudes of a musician’s income!  It is a tremendous privilege to create the music that is enjoyed in congregations and carpools wherever I travel.  The best part of checking my email is seeing the occasional testimonial of how my songs may have touched a listener.  Keep those emails coming!  May God give me the strength to continue to play and sing and bring audiences together like I did on that sunny Sunday in Denver.

The Jewish Music Manifesto

Thursday, March 1st, 2012

by Sam Glaser

The Beginning

Shlomo Carlebach and Debbie Friedman started something big. Much like the Internet freed visionaries to rip away the barriers of industry, these two composers wrote music from their hearts and delivered it directly to the people. They didn’t go to a conservatory to get degrees in composition. Nor did they spend six years at a cantorial school. They heard music in their heads, translated it for the world to access with simple guitar chords and sweet, non-operatic voices, and hit the road to any venue open to their spiritual message.

Their music was not klezmer, the schizophrenic happy/sad party music of the Ashkenazi old world. Nor was it weighty like cantorial and choral works by Louis Lewandowski or Ernest Bloch. It didn’t poke fun at tradition or lament shtetl life like Yiddish Theater or Allan Sherman. It wasn’t yet another repackaging of the Israeli hits born from the legacy of war. This was genuine American Jewish music, made for the people, by the people, with its roots in the radical belief that Judaism is a religion of life and celebration. North American Contemporary Jewish Music (CJM) transcends the burden of the Holocaust and pogroms. It is the music of a people born on the wings of eagles to a land that has offered themunprecedented tranquility, success and freedom. It is the music of a profound and unprecedented byproduct of the 20th century: the optimistic Jew.

Thousands of young Jews flocked to Shlomo and Debbie concerts and memorized their songs. Over the decades, the very institutions that mocked or discarded these seminal figures eventually found themselves enraptured by their melodies. Their music captured the ebullient mood of the youth and of course the youth grew to positions of power and made CJM normative. Young Jewish musicians, myself included, saw them in the limelight and realized, “YES…this is what we want to do!” This generation included the likes of Craig Taubman, Julie Silver, Dan Nichols and Rick Recht, groups like Kol Beseder, Safam and the Moshav Band. These artists were compelled to create recorded music that exceeded the production quality of their mentors while carrying the same message of the spirit. Their success has led to exponentially more composers in the now up-and-coming generation, who are creating innovative music that combines the best of hip hop, folk, rock and jazz with clever beat boxing, looping and generous helpings of studio magic.

Good News

Today this renaissance has created a music market that is bursting at the seams. Many of the countless Jewish albums released every year are audiophile quality; whereas 20 years ago most Jewish albums were poorly produced, nowadays the majority are comparable with any releases in the secular world. Among the Jewish music industry summits are such conferences as NewCAJE, Hava Nashira and the Reform Biennial where songwriters perform their latest and jam late into the night. Soundswrite, a Jewish music distributor now under the auspices of the Union for Reform Judaism markets nearly 400

CD titles on its website; Mostly Music, associated with the Orthodox movement, carries the work of over 1300 different artists. Just last week the annual Song Leader Boot Camp offered three full days of training in the art form to over 90 young singers and composers. The main CJM online outlet,, boasts nearly 4000 songs available for download, not to mention the availability of the matching sheet music. “Jefe, would you say we have a plethora?”

Shrinking Resources

While the music business at large is suffering globally, Jewish music has its unique tzuris (pain.) Like all musicians, we generally pay our bills by virtue of our live bookings and sales of our music. After four years in the current recession we see that cultural arts events are often the disposable item on most synagogue and JCC budgets. Shuls nationwide are merging, most are cutting “extra” clergy like cantors and songleaders, and the transmission of the arts is falling into the hands of whichever parent volunteer can play guitar or wield a paintbrush. Our precious Jewish children are growing up without an awareness of their cultural history, their repertoire of music is stunted and access to active Jewish musical role models is increasingly limited. And that’s for the kids who ARE affiliated, who actually show up to the synagogue once in a while and attend Jewish summer camps.

A primary issue with the industry as a whole is the shocking abandonment of the physical delivery of music by consumers under 30 years old. Many young listeners do not even own CD players and have never paid for music. Their ipods hold thousands of songs “gifted” from friends or “found” on the Internet. It’s a great era to be a music consumer and a lousy one to be a provider. Over the past decade, brick and mortar record shops have disappeared with awesome rapidity. In the Jewish world, this trend is manifest in the disappearance of Judaica stores, and for the hearty survivors, an ever-shrinking music department. There are very few Jewish music distribution companies left and those that are still fighting the battle are finding that the profits are so low that it’s easier to walk away than sell their beleaguered enterprises.  This trend does not make the creation of quality new Jewish music less important.

Our silver lining in CJM is the possibility for widespread dissemination of our music and message via outlets like iTunes, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and Spotify. Like never before we can get the word out about new projects, share behind the scenes adventures and concert footage with fans, and we no longer have to endure the tyranny of record labels or distributors dictating our marketing moves. That said, of the above outlets, only iTunes pays. My “day gig” is producing albums for a wide variety of clients. I used to tell them that they only had to sell about 1500 CDs to break even on production costs. That was based on the $15 per album that they could typically charge audiences after a concert, a goal that the average working musician could fathom. With iTunes, the breakeven point jumps to nearly 50,000 singles that must be sold. The new model has emasculated the long form album, the beloved collections that gave singers a dozen songs to make their artistic statements. Spotify, the rising star of subscription services, referred to as the “iTunes killer,” pays the artist .3 cents per listen. I shudder to do the math.


Sorry about the grim outlook. I have some ideas to brighten the future. My plan is to unite around an existing arts-focused non-profit and create The Contemporary Jewish Music Association, or something like that with a better sounding acronym. I will locate like-minded, deep-pocketed individuals who appreciate the musical gifts of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach and Debbie Friedman and the revolutions that they inspired. These will be benefactors that understand that in addition to supporting hospitals and the hungry, we need to keep our greatest cultural aspirations alive. Under a single umbrella we will create a collection of entities that will lift the profile of CJM by providing publicity, enhance composing, recording and performance opportunities for artists and allow for unprecedented recognition for accomplishments. I plan to be the CEO, my wife will be CFO and we’ll hire a Jewish music loving Ivy League MBA as our COO. Overhead will be minimized and accountability and transparency will be top-notch. I beleive the effect on the Jewish world will be nothing short of radical, transforming it from an afterthought to a bonafide industry alongside our Christian music counterparts.

(See February 2012 Newsletter sidebar for my wish list of the initial twelve branches.)

I like to dream big. I’ve been doing so since the age of seven when I started writing songs about global issues and facing mortality. When I was twelve I started preparing for my Bar Mitzvah. I joined our Sinai Temple Shachrit Choir, studied Torah andHaftorah trope with our organist Aryell Cohen, and mastered Mussaf with Cantor Joe Gole who took me under his wing. I had to learn the portions both for my LA ceremony and the one that followed a few weeks later at the holy Western Wall. One night my mom recognized my accomplishments in that short period of time. She came into my bedroom as I negotiated our ancient texts and said, “Sammy, if you keep pursuing your goals like you did this year, there is nothing that will stop you.” Thanks Mom…I’ve been a workaholic ever since.

It’s tempting to walk away from the music business at this point. Most of my peers have done so. My guitarist recently said to me, “I’m just glad that I got to be alive when it was possible to make a living as a working musician.” The problem is that I have learned to love this small, underfunded CJM genre. I have all my eggs in this fragile basket. It’s not enough to help CJM to survive; I believe the Jewish world needs it to thrive. Rabbi Natan Lopez Cardozo teaches that the great King Chizkiyahu was supposed to become Mashiach and put an end to the suffering of the Jewish people. But he couldn’t sing and therefore couldn’t inspire his offspring. “There is no future to Jewish learning and Judaism without a song and a smile.”

Music unifies a disparate group like nothing else. In my opinion, meaningful, well-produced Contemporary Jewish Music is the most powerful expression of our people. Last week during his LA visit, the Chief Rabbi of the UK, Lord Jonathan Sacks told me, “Sam, more than we need sermons, we need your music to unite our people. You have the unique ability to take what has been and breathe new life into it. While Torah always stays the same, music must change. We need your new music, your shir chadash, to keep Judaism alive.” Chief Rabbi used two songs that I recorded in for his “Israel at 60” anniversary album that was given to over 260,000 families throughout Europe. He’s a powerful fan. I only reached him because I was invited to play a high profile UK event. I got that gig from performing at a US based event of an organization that sadly went bankrupt on the heels of the 2008 recession. If I were new on the scene today, I doubt I would have had the chance to make an impression. I’m so grateful that I’ve had the fortune to release over twenty CDs of the music of my dreams and travel to fifty cities a year singing that music for happy audiences. I think the next generation of talented Jewish musicians deserves the same opportunity.

Most of you are thinking…Sam is living in Fantasyland. Not true…I much prefer Tomorrowland. My friends, millions of dollars are given away by Jewish benefactors everyday.  We just need one. Theodore Herzl said “If you will it, it is no dream,” and look where that got him!  Thanks to Shlomo and Debbie for the music, for striving against all odds, for giving us a career and a dream.