Ensemble makes beautiful Sephardic music on new CD

For some, the Jewish diaspora conjures images of shtetl-dwelling Ashkenazim cursing (in Yiddish) the winter chill. But Sephardic Jews live — and sing — in warmer climes.

Spain, Portugal, Greece and Turkey gave rise to Sephardic culture, with the music of Ladino-speaking Jews among its lasting treasures.

The Gerard Edery Ensemble is one of the most celebrated bands playing Ladino music today. Over a 10-CD career, the group earned a reputation for turning in modern renditions of folk tunes while remaining true to tradition. Their new CD, “Amid the Jasmine,” is a worthy addition to their catalog.

The Morocco-born Edery grew up in Paris and New York. Trained as both a classical singer and guitarist, he has also served as a cantorial soloist at synagogues and Jewish Community Centers across North America. But as the music on the CD shows, his heart belongs to the Sephardic folk tradition of his forebears.

Though they play largely ancient music, the Edery Ensemble employs the same basic tools as any pop band: guitar, drums, bass and vocals. There are occasional flourishes from mandolin, oud, dumbek and violin, but Edery keeps it simple, with his flamenco-style acoustic guitar and duet vocals (with soprano Nell Snaidas) always front and center.

Ultimately, the ensemble does for Sephardic music what ’60s bands like Pentangle and Fairport Convention did for traditional British folk music — give it a contemporary twist.

The opening track, “Hija Mia Querida” (“My Dear Daughter”) typifies the CD: animated, melodic and grounded in Andalusian motifs (though this one is from Turkey). Most of the songs — such as “Ojos Asesinos,” “Entre Las Huertas Paseando” and the jazzy “Tres Hermanicas” — feature simple love stories, and don’t embody overtly Jewish themes. “El Galanteo” is an elegant duet sung by Edery and Snaidas, as is the standout track “El Encuentro Nocturno,” a psalm-like cry in the night.

Edery brings out the Jewish music with songs like “Kochav Tsedek” (sung in Hebrew) and “La Ley Estimada.” The former is a Middle Eastern-sounding homage to the patriarch Abraham, the latter a folksy retelling of the revelation on Mt. Sinai.

Edery is a superb guitarist. Falling somewhere between Andres Segovia’s classical precision and the Assad Brothers’ Gypsy abandon, his style brings out a Mediterranean passion in every song, including his solo guitar original, “Esperando.”

Unfortunately, his vocals, while evocative, are less satisfying. A natural baritone, Edery spends too much time straining in his higher register, often sounding like Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion. The classically trained Snaidas acquits herself better, and one only wishes she had a singing lead on every track.

The band goes awry on the one English-language song “Where Corals Lie,” a treacly exercise in bad high school love poetry. Yet even here, the band’s playing is exquisitely tasteful.

For anyone remotely conversant in Spanish, the very similar Ladino language holds a magical fascination. The same is true for the musical confluence of ancient Hebrew melody, Middle Eastern rhythms and Iberian spirit that underlies Ladino music.

That is one of the key pleasures of “Under the Jasmine.” In a few simple tunes, Edery and his band convey the sweep of the Sephardis’ 2,000-year history, from Israel to North Africa, on to Spain and then to Turkey. To trace that journey in music is a pleasure.

“Amid the Jasmine” by the Gerard Edery Ensemble (Sefarad Records). Available at www.SefaradRecords.com.

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Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.