TESHUVA: Liturgical Explorations for the Days of Awe

Review by Cantor Sam Weiss

album cover

Ramón Tasat, César Lerner and Marcelo Moguilevsky

CD available from www.paznet.com/ ramontasat/rtrecord.html

The most recent album by Ramón Tasat signals a noteworthy phase in the evolution of this energetic and prolific concert and recording artist. Over the course of his previous twelve collections Tasat has researched, arranged and lent his poignant singing to a wide range of Sephardic, Israeli, Italian and other liturgical and secular songs. Many of the earlier albums featured collaborations with other vocalists and instrumentalists that went beyond merely supplementing his own fine guitar accompaniments. On this thirteenth recording, however, Tasat takess his penchant for tapping the creativity of others to a new level of artistic synergy. César Lerner and Marcelo Moguilevsky, friends of Tasat from his native Argentina who form the talented duo Klezmer en Buenos Aires, have joined forces with him to create an outstanding Jewish fusion album—born of a fruitful combination of musical sensibilities rather than of specific styles or genres.

The selections on Teshuva are a mix of familiar and tuneful Ashkenazic liturgical pieces, a few original compositions or adaptations, and the rousing Sephardic favorite Eil Nora Alila. The texts, which come from the High Holiday Service or otherwise relate to the theme of religious introspection, are the album's primary unifying element. But the familiarity of the source material is only the first step in this artistic venture. The intimate congregation of Tasat, Moguilevsky and Lerner transforms these prayers into bold personal explorations marked by many musical leaps of faith.

The three musicians give every piece the time and attention it deserves, blending the spirit of each song with their own personas. Much as Leib Glantz shattered the mold of the "Golden Age" Hazzanic recitative with his intensely personal approach to improvisation and word-painting, Tasat has opened a new path in the performance of popular liturgical songs. He "wails" the Hebrew lyrics with the soul of a cantor and the abandon of a jazzman, though his improvisations and phrasing are not rooted in either of these two musical traditions. Indeed, his interpretations are the perfect vocal counterparts of Lerner and Moguilevsky's famed instrumental virtuosity—intriguing musical communication that owes allegiance to no genre.

If we may draw an analogy to the religious penitent who seeks to revoke his past deeds, on this album Ramón Tasat is the musical Ba'al Teshuva who seems eager to cast off the strictures of his bel canto reputation, in search of truer self-expression and the deeper meanings of his chosen texts. For instance, Lerner and Moguilevsky's avant-jazz dissonances, growlings and squealings embolden the singer towards sprechstimme and other departures from the vocal technique we have come to expect based on his earlier recordings. The impromptu instrumental commentaries to the texts and melodies are usually enriching and on the mark, though exceptions do arise. For example, the brief "crying" klezmer clarinet riff in the very somber setting of Ben-Zion Shenker's Mizmor L'David (Psalm 23) strikes the listener as a "laughing" clarinet, when heard against Tasat's simultaneous true crying.

Mizmor L'David ends with a vocal and instrumental extension of the final words l'orech yamim, underscoring their meaning of "for the length of days" or "forever." The last note of this coda leads seamlessly into the first note of an almost nine-minute elaboration of the folk-tune version of Avinu Malkeynu. (While this extended Avinu Malkeynu is a masterpiece of heartfelt prayer, due to the sparse instrumentation on this CD, however, other prolonged passages can register on some listeners as a bit self-indulgent.) Other favorites of mine are the Bluesy and strikingly fresh Yehi Ratzon, and the quasi-symphonic Hayom T'amtzenu—in which the traditional banal repetitions of the word hayom are deconstructed into motivic material for a novel extended composition.

Teshuva is admittedly a serious musical work, nevertheless some of the songs suffer from overly lachrymose performances. This may be due at times to the particularly plaintive timbre of Tasat's tenor voice, but more often it is a result of a deliberate artistic approach. Perhaps the adaptation of Sim Shalom to the theme from Schindler's List, while not typical, hints at the aesthetics underlying the entire CD. A doleful singing style is especially questionable when it is not supported by the overall meaning of the text (e.g. Tasat's otherwise effective original setting of Pit'hu Lanu Sha'are Tzedek) or when it is at odds with Lerner and Moguilevsky's more playful gestures (for example on Hamol Al Ma'asekha). In the closing Hassidic Kaddish Shalem Tasat finally provides much-needed emotional release and matches the duo's vivacity. Compared to the rest of the album, in fact, the treatment of this joyous tune is somewhat giddy, even though it is done with the same musical intelligence that marks the entire recording.

Like the person on the road to teshuva, this is an album about embarking, about striving to be what one is not yet. For the listener, this is an exhilarating musical journey well worth taking.

Teshuva is available at www.paznet.com/ramontasat/rtrecord.html

Reviewed by Cantor Sam Weiss, 9/14/04. E-mail Sam Weiss

Personnel this recording:
Ramón Tasat: voice, guitar
César Lerner: piano, accordion, percussion
Marcelo Moguilevsky: clarinet, Jew's harp, flute, harmonica


  1. Eil Nora Alila
  2. Psalm 23
  3. Avinu Malkeinu
  4. Hamol Al Ma'asekha
  5. LaB'rit Habeit
  6. Yehi Ratzon
  7. Pithu Lanu Sha'are Tzedek
  8. Sim Shalom
  9. HaYom T'amtzeinu
  10. Al Tasteir Panekha
  11. Kaddish Shalem

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