I have always felt that some musicians in the Klezmer world are less recognized simply because they aren’t recording and performing the US. This is especially true of Polina and Merlin Shepherd, who make some of the best music to be found anywhere (and which is specifically performed most often in the UK). Teaming Polina’s voice and piano with that of Klezmatics singer/keyboardist Loren Sklamberg, one of the sweetest and most tuneful yiddish singers of the last decades, is one of those ideas so obvious I can only wonder why it hasn’t happened before. Enough. Here it is (and here I am a year later).
From the opening chords of “Ma Noimar” to the closing “Aheym”, starting with Lorin’s superlative voice, what we have here is a “typical” Shepherd’s mix of traditional and newly composed Yiddish and Russian songs with klezmer and southern Mediterranean music. If you have been following Polina and Merlin for the last couple of decades, you know of her amazing voice and piano playing, and his incredible clarinet playing. Dip into “Ay-yay-yay,” which begins, doina-ish with a solo by Merlin, then adds Polina’s voice, and then Lorin’s, one gets a first sense of how natural and new their voices and instruments sound together. Listening to Lorin’s voice on songs such as “Viglid” (lullaby or the following “Keyn fligl hob ikh nit” (without wings), this time harmonizing with Polina, is to experience two voices that were made to sing together. Even on what should be a typical drinking song, “Di bekhers mit vayn,” they trio find ways to go beyond, in celebration.
Best, much of this is new material. Whether setting old poems to music, or composing entirely new pieces (in Yiddish, Russian, or pure klezmer), the Shepherds show a path for new klezmer and Yiddish (and Russian) going beyond folk traditions to the creation of new art song, as on “Sankt Besht” (Saint Balshemtov), in which nign and art song meld into something special. The words are excellent. These are the artists to do it. Needless to say (but being a reviewer, I’ll write it anyway), Merlin’s compositions, especially the solo “Daybreak” pair, are stunning (the second features the entire trio). When I first met him 20 years ago at KlezKamp he was already an outstanding clarinet player. He has only gotten better and deeper, since.
I walk at a slow, quiet pace. Each breath brings me closer to peace. Softly and steadily I feel my way home… Home… Strangely, painfully and with sadness a faraway light glimmers. I quicken my steps, let my fear go and fly up. Home… Home. (translation of lyrics from the closing, eponymous song, “Aheym”)
Now, in an ideal world, this recording will also help bring the Shepherds to North America more frequently, to everyone’s pleasure. Pick up or download copies of this recording at the convenient emporium nearest you (or your computer) soonest, surround yourself in the music, and let’s make that inevitable.
Songlines Magazine Spring 2016
“There has been a rising tide of new Yiddish music in recent years, and the latest to ride the crest of the wave are Sklamberg & the Shepherds with their first collaborative release aheym/homeward.
New York- based Lorin Sklamberg has had an immeasurable impact on the global Jewish music scene since the beginning of the Klezmer Revival. His instantly recognizable vocal style and musicianship, as well as his reputation as a leading Ethnomusicologist have put him at the top of the Klezmer scene for decades. The UK- based husband/wife duo Polina and Merlin Shepherd have won acclaim for their worldwide concert performances and recordings. Polina is a highly regarded vocalist in multiple languages, and Merlin is among the top Clarinetists in the world today.
Seth Rogovoy, authour, The Essential Klezmer in December 2015: